Walking unseen among us are thousands of homeless, mentally ill and otherwise vulnerable people – many of whom will never get the help they need.(First published in FishHead magazine, August 2012)
On a cold, flat winter’s day, just before dawn, the doors of the night shelter on Taranaki Street spring open, propelling their guests out onto the streets. And so, at 7.30am each morning, begins what these homeless people know as ‘the circuit’.
Their first stop is the soup kitchen on upper Tory Street, where bread and soup are served from 8am. Then the day passes in visiting the Central Library, especially the second floor, which stocks the newspapers; sleeping and hanging out at Courtenay’s drop-in centre, just down from the Majestic Centre on Willis Street; or simply wandering the streets, begging and otherwise killing time. At 4.45pm the soup kitchen starts serving dinner; then it’s back to the night shelter before it closes at 9pm.
And the next day it begins again.
When you work, as I do, at the soup kitchen, this world comes into sharper focus, and it’s easy to think then that you know something about homelessness. But when you probe more deeply, you realise that, paradoxically, those following the circuit are far more visible than the thousands of ‘hidden’ homeless and other vulnerable souls: the people who are not at the night shelter, nor sleeping rough, nor in the care of the state, but who have nowhere permanent they could call a home and receive little help with their many problems. These are the people living in boarding houses – cramped, dirty, often dangerous places that are almost entirely unregulated and charge up to $270 a week for board and food; the people living in terrible overcrowding, sometimes two or three families to a house; the people sleeping in cars, garages and abandoned flats; the people suffering mental health problems supposedly too minor to attract state aid; the people couch-surfing or staying with friends. Behind closed doors, in short, there lies a world of problems.
This sort of homelessness is not the same as the street kind, but it does overlap. Many people on the streets have come from these living situations; many return there. People cycle from couch-surfing to the night shelter to squatting, and back. Both worlds are precarious and unstable, full of lives that have little leeway to cope with sudden shocks.
Not everything, of course, in these two worlds is grim. Many of these people are eventually helped to get the housing and support they need, or they help themselves. Nor are the authorities totally blind to the problem; in fact, Wellington City Council has recently renewed its drive to reduce homelessness and its associated ills. But the problems are many: affordable housing is chronically undersupplied, financial woes are forcing ever more families into desperate measures – and, just when people need more support, some government agencies are withdrawing the hand held out in aid.
Though we have not traditionally had reliable figures on vulnerability, statistics to be published later this year will show that in the 2006 census, several thousand people in Wellington were ‘severely housing deprived’, a term that covers both the worlds outlined above. (Given the current economic climate, that figure will only have risen.) Within that, the consensus is that there are 30 or so rough sleepers – people actually living on the streets – at any one time; more broadly, Wellington City Council says the city has 200 ‘homeless’ people, on a narrow definition, up from 160 a year ago.
For a few thousands of people, there are dozens of reasons why they end up where they are – and it is precisely the combination of things, the piling on of many burdens, that does the damage, as can be seen at the extreme end of homelessness. On the day I went to talk to Mike Leon, who has run the night shelter for the last 17 years, he showed me a list detailing the 22 new visitors to the shelter in April. Some had felt unsafe in their previous home; others had been kicked out by family and partners; yet others had been released from jail with nowhere to go. Although a lack of money always hovers in the background, Leon said relationship breakdowns were the greatest problem. People who have few reliable friends and no family ties – which in our atomised world is increasingly common – don’t always have somewhere else to stay when they are kicked out. Even then, one problem is often manageable. But when there are multiple problems, as when someone’s relationship breaks down and alcoholism consumes all their money, or when they have diabetes and a criminal record that makes getting work nigh-on impossible – and then those problems are exacerbated by a sudden shock, like being evicted – it’s then that people fall into the world of homelessness.
One particular problem, of course, is the lack of affordable housing in Wellington: many people are simply unable to afford a place to stay. Beneficiaries who can’t get into a council or Housing New Zealand home have no chance of paying market rents, not when a bottom-end Aro Valley flat can easily cost $150 a week, and the dole plus the accommodation supplement is $300 a week at best. (Internationally, it’s accepted that no one should pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent.) There’s more on offer in, say, Wainuiomata, but that’s little comfort if you can’t afford the bus fares every day. Even a flat in Northland for $100 a week can be unaffordable when transport costs are included. A couple on one minimum wage salary, meanwhile, would be paying half their weekly $500 income on rent if they wanted to live in a bottom-end Aro house.
It doesn’t help that beneficiaries in particular don’t always get the support they deserve. On another day I visited Graham Howell, who runs a benefits advocacy service in Newtown, and he showed me an internal Ministry of Social Development document revealing that only half of all beneficiaries eligible for emergency grants actually get them, because Work and Income (WINZ) staff don’t always inform people of their entitlements.
Duncan, a 30-year-old homeless man who had been in Wellington for two weeks when I met him, told a similar story. He was trying to get on a Salvation Army course to combat his alcoholism, which had lost him his job as a DOC ranger in the South Island, but he had no money left for accommodation or food. The first time he went to see WINZ, the case manager said they could do little to help him while he waited for his benefit stand-down period to end. But when he went back a second time, hungry and desperate, a friendlier case manager helped him get an emergency grant and a food voucher – both of which he’d been entitled to all along.
Of course, in the current climate, WINZ workers have troubles of their own. One Wellington region staff member, speaking anonymously, described to me a culture of staff cuts, constant restructuring and severe stress. Six staff members had left in the last 18 months and not been replaced, and his colleagues often couldn’t take time off because no one could cover for them. Meanwhile, staff were abused on a daily basis because beneficiaries couldn’t get appointments. This, he said, was serious trouble on the frontline.
None of which is to say that the vulnerable people themselves are blameless in all this. Many of their wounds are self-inflicted, to an extent. But Philippa Meachen, who runs the soup kitchen, reflected a widely held view when she told me that the more she sees of homeless people, the more she respects them. Many have had violent or abusive childhoods, or mental health problems, or other things that make them not very employable; yet they keep trying to find work. We may think of ourselves as very different from these vulnerable people, but were it not for a few things, as one soup kitchen volunteer put it, we could easily be on the other side of that kitchen counter.
There are, of course, many different kinds of homelessness. The 22 men on Mike Leon’s list might have all (bar one) been on a benefit or had no income at all, but nothing much else united them. They were all ages, from teens to 57-year-olds. They had come from all over the country, including Auckland, Palmerston North and Foxton, and from different living arrangements – rough sleeping, often, but also boarding houses and living with friends. Many were only temporarily homeless. Though 20 new people turn up at the shelter each month, some do eventually move into permanent housing; others just drop off the radar. The Downtown Community Ministry (DCM) deals with 180-plus people each quarter who are homeless, but not all of them remain so. A very few people sleep rough for decades, but most shuffle in and out of different homes, never quite finding a place to rest.
It would be nice to think that, in an economic slump, central government was doing more to help people struggling to cope. After all, the need is there. The number of food parcels being handed out nationwide has doubled since 2008. The Wellington City Mission alone helped 4000 people last year, many of them from working families no longer able to make ends meet. Yet a couple of crucial government agencies are, if anything, cutting back on the services they provide.
The first is Housing New Zealand, which, even though it is the agency that owns and runs most of the country’s social housing, no longer believes it has a social mandate, and has handed social housing policy over to the Department of Building and Housing. Staff who visit tenants in their homes have been instructed to stop helping them with the wider social problems they encounter, and to refer them instead to other government departments. When I questioned them about the move last year, Housing New Zealand was unable to say how the referral system would work or how it would be funded. (The agency refused an interview request for this article.) Housing New Zealand also rejected requests to send a staff member to Wellington City Council’s homelessness forum in June. Elsewhere, the agency has tightened its eligibility criteria: women suffering from domestic violence, for example, are no longer automatically accepted for emergency housing. A shift from staffed offices to call centres has seen people seeking help put on hold for 45 minutes or an hour. And the agency no longer puts lower priority applicants on its waiting list, thus removing thousands of people from the statistics.
The other agency is the Capital Coast District Health Board (DHB), which runs the area’s mental health services. The board has been in the news recently for cutting $270,000 from the budget of the Newtown Union, an organisation that provides healthcare – and in particular outreach clinics for people who wouldn’t normally visit a doctor – to some of Wellington’s poorest families. The board has also cut funding to groups working with refugees and other services as it struggles with a budget deficit caused by the new Wellington hospital and health funding not keeping up with inflation.
But in addition to these well-publicised cuts, the DHB has also slashed mental health budgets and is planning further changes that many fear will spell yet more cuts. They currently fund around 190 ‘supported’ beds, which provide supervised housing for people with mental health problems, but are believed to want to reduce that to 100 as they encourage more patients to rent their own homes and call on services only when they need them. (The DHB also refused to be interviewed for this article.) No one working in this field objects to the overall aim, which is part of the long journey away from locking people up in institutions towards independence in their own home. But the health board is, according to NGOs in the sector, refusing to guarantee that all the funding for supported housing will be transferred to the so-called ‘wrap-around’ services under the new model. The suspicion, inevitably, is that the policy change will be used to drive down the cost of the contracted support services, and the savings used to reduce the health board’s deficit.
One mental health NGO, Wellink, has already had its $8 million budget cut by one-third in the last two years. And it’s not as if funding was generous to start with. Wellink’s chief executive, Shaun McNeil, told me that Wellington – and New Zealand – services have always concentrated on the 3 percent of the population with the most severe mental illness: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and so on. Countless people with lower-level disorders receive no treatment. At a conference in June on post-prison reintegration there were heartbreaking stories of NGOs trying to work with ex-inmates who were self-harming and attempting suicide, or intellectually disabled, or – in one awful case – terrorising their own mother so badly that she fled town. Yet none of these obviously disturbed people fitted the mental health criteria, so the health board teams turned them away. (The lack of support for ex-prisoners is a story all of its own. The Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Trust (PART), a group funded to help ex-inmates, has only enough money to devote one day – eight hours – to each person released from prison in Wellington. Another problem: many inmates come out of prison with no photo ID, so they can’t set up a bank account – and no bank account means no benefit, which means no income and, often, a return to crime; and so the cycle resumes.)
Wellington City Council’s forum in June canvassed a range of ideas to help tackle or even eliminate homelessness, many of which are outlined opposite (see box). But there are obstacles even at the highest levels. New Zealand has no national strategy to coordinate action on homelessness, for example. And at the local level, the city council – unlike, say, British local authorities – has no legal duty to house the homeless. That means there’s no coordinated assessment, sifting or categorising of homeless people, and no shared central register, as well as few emergency housing options.
Action can still be taken, of course, and the council is particularly keen to break the daily ‘circuit’. Not only is it dull and monotonous, but it maintains rather than lifts people out of homelessness. The council has offered to fund a review of how the night shelter could offer government services onsite, provide more activities for its guests, and move more people into permanent housing. Of course, the shelter might have done all this already, but for a lack of funds. However, a more holistic public service approach could see the Department of Corrections, for example, funding the shelter to provide support for ex-inmates. Similarly, there are questions over whether the drop-in centres – such as Courtenay’s, and Catacombs on Manners Street – could do more to help people out of homelessness. The Downtown Community Ministry’s Lukes Lane headquarters, meanwhile, could be turned into a central ‘hub’, housing all the services that homeless people need under one roof.
But perhaps the single biggest obstacle to ending homelessness – and to helping the legions of people in severe housing need – is the lack of affordable and alternative housing. There is, of course, some already: the city council has 2350 houses, where rents are set at 70 percent of the market price, while Housing New Zealand provides just under 1900, with rents at 25 percent of an individual’s income. (Another 100 or so houses are in the hands of NGOs such as the Wellington Housing Trust.) Nonetheless, over a thousand people are on housing waiting lists in the Wellington region. Both the council and Housing New Zealand have got rid of a third of their stock since the mid-1980s, according to the Wellington Housing Trust. And even though the capital’s population is expected to grow by 55,000 in the next few decades, neither organisation has any plans to build a meaningful number of houses.
Even if there are affordable flats around, many homeless people – and the agencies that work with them – report covert discrimination: landlords will find ways to avoid giving flats to beneficiaries or homeless people. And in truth, some chronically homeless people are incapable of living alone, and would be a trial to any ordinary landlord. What they need is supported housing, which, as mentioned above, Wellington already provides for people with mental health problems. As DCM’s Stephanie McIntyre is forever pointing out, Wellington has a very narrow range of options. Even a wet house for supervised alcoholics seems to be too difficult.
Still, the measures that came out of the June forum, if taken together, would represent a major advance: a real chance to end, rather than manage, homelessness and its associated ills. Because although Ben Hana became a kind of folk hero – to his own and others’ detriment, many would argue – most street living is not romantic. Recently I met one streetie – to use his term – who steered clear of his fellow rough sleepers. Underneath any kindness, he found, was an ulterior motive: someone who offered cigarettes one day would want twice as many back on the next. Many rough sleepers sleep alone, because it’s not always safe to trust the others. Some streeties will stand over others for protection money, or attack them; steel-capped boots are often the weapon of choice.
But then the general public isn’t above a bit of abuse. Mike Leon told me he knew of several cases of members of the public attacking or abusing homeless people. In one deeply disturbing night-time incident, three young women, drunk and dressed up for a night on the town, urinated and defecated on a comatose homeless man lying on the ground just outside the night shelter.
Yet not all is ill; there is kindness, too, and solidarity. One evening I stopped in at the Catacombs drop-in centre, above the Cosmic Store on Manners Street, which is a high-ceilinged, run-down old set of three rooms with a TV and some other basic facilities. It wasn’t very cheerful, but the people there were getting along peaceably enough. One of them, who even had a house of his own, said he came there largely for the company. So, too, did a man who, I discovered, lives in a garage in the Aro Valley, having previously stayed in an abandoned building and in the service area of a multi-storey car park. He’d once had a flat out in Northland, but couldn’t afford the bus fare into town, he said, and no one came to visit, so, rather than die of loneliness, he gave it up. Now he has a door he can shut behind him, a candle, some matches, a sleeping bag, a duvet, and a roof over his head; and this is happiness of a kind.
That same night, I was walking home along Tory Street by the Harvey Norman store when I sensed as much as saw ahead of me the familiar tread of a soup kitchen guest. He was moving with the slow, halting gait of those who have nowhere particular to go, a tread so very different from the hurried, purposeful step of people with places to be and deadlines to meet. I watched this man – 40ish, heavyset, limping – walk haltingly across Tory Street towards Restaurant 88, where a party of young women stood outside, prattling under the neon lights; then he pushed past them into the darkness of Ebor Street. As it was on my way home, I followed him along that road, round its bend and onto Vivian Street. Then he turned into a car park between two buildings and, looking for a place to rest that night, was lost in shadow.
Those following the circuit are among Wellington’s most vulnerable people, individuals who not only lack a place to live but are also often battling drug and alcohol addictions, poor physical health and low-level – or indeed severe – mental health problems. And yet they are curiously hard to see.
Though their circuit may have all the hallmarks of the middle-class daily commute, with its early rising, routine journeys and nightly return, the two patterns of living are like a pair of rings that fit through each other but never touch. Though we may pass sightlessly by one another, almost close enough to touch, luck – or individual effort, depending on your point of view – keeps the two sets of lives apart. And so the most vulnerable people, except the semi-legendary figures like Ben Hana, have a strange kind of invisibility, hidden in plain sight, living literally and metaphorically in shadow.