Te Kuiti is a small town in the North Island, it lies in a valley, its Maori name means the valley or the squeezing in, the narrowing and in winter it is bitterly cold, the temperature is lower than a snakes belly and wetter than a politicians excuse library, in summer it is very hot and dry. It saps the spirit, and dries out your bones wet or dry. Like many provincial rural towns in New Zealand it has been hit hard by neo-liberal economics. It was here that I first struck the bleak reality of inadequate housing. I can see the picture clearly in my head as if it happened today not some 35 years past.
I was with a friend of the family, visiting during my school holidays and we went to this house, it was a publicly owned house, fibre cement cladding, wooden joinery, pretty typical of much of the public housing stock in New Zealand we had gone around on an errand. My good catholic upbringing meant I was unaware of what was being procured, but shall we call it a herbal remedy as I reflect on the nights exchange. Our contact wasn’t there, I remember how cold it was, the wind leaking into the house, creeping through every corner and joint and there sitting shivering, shaking and hunched on a hard wooden chair was a man, he looked like he was in his 60’s, the oven door open, elements all on full, his feet nearly inside the oven as he tried to get warm. This image has stuck with me for a long time, I remember the cold and he had electricity and a roof over his head, we will come back to that later.
Having a roof over your head does not mean you have a home, when we talk about the homeless et al we need to remember that homelessness means different things to different people, Ben Hana also known as Blanket Man lived on the streets of Wellington for nearly 20 years, I suspect this is what he called home. He lived there by choice it seems, unable to come to terms with causing the death of his friend through drink driving he took to the streets making them his home. Blanket man was the public face of homelessness in the streets of Wellington. If we think that Te Kuiti would be a harsh place to be homeless then Wellington must be even more so. What do we know about homelessness?
It is not a new phenomenon in New Zealand the plight of the homeless, it has been the subject of many reports from as far back as 1860. Collective hand wringing and some attempts to provide solutions have occurred but nothing really has improved. Unfortunately what has happened is that there is a greatly increased incidence of homelessness since the late 1980’s onwards, with no let up. The face of homelessness is changing from images like blanket man to images of families living in cars, garages, huts, sleep-outs, sofas. In many cases it is the poor helping the poor with people unable to turn their backs on friends relatives even those they don’t know. I have done it in the past and probably will again in the future.
Remember that homelessness goes well beyond the streeties you see with hat in front of them mumbling change please mam/sir just a bit of change…. The problem increases all the time. Rental properties are at a premium in Christchurch, Tauranga and is exploding in Auckland. Our response is like I said dependent, dependent on the face of homelessness, if we don’t have to put a face on it or a name, or that face is that of the “undeserving” then we can sleep at night. Safe in the knowledge that it is a lifestyle choice. What do we do when it becomes very obvious that it is not a lifestyle choice, what is our response then?