When a Child's Home is a Car

From Insight, 8:12 am on 7 February 2016

Working families with young children and babies are being left homeless and sleeping in cars in Auckland, as they struggle to get into emergency housing, and are turned off or away from Housing New Zealand.

Parents say even with accommodation supplement benefits, their wages don't cover rising rents, and living in garages or spending nights on the floors of friends and family are the only options they have.

Emergency accommodation providers say they are constantly full, underfunded, and are having to turn away families who are in dire need.

The boot is full of bedding and some food

For some, the family car is also the family home Photo: Supplied

Anna* is re-packing the car.

Between the children's car seats are small piles of clothes and a few carefully selected toys. She pulls a white rabbit onesie from under a small foam mattress and refolds it before opening a compartment, and explaining how she stores food.

"I can keep in there things that will keep cool. I've got little chilly bags. We try not to have too much fresh food on us, we just buy fresh fruit."

A few weeks ago, Anna and her three children, aged between six and 13, were evicted from their North Shore home.

They now switch between couch surfing at friends' houses and sleeping in the car.

"Usually in a public area that's got a little bit of privacy but also lighting, so the other day, we parked up in the next carpark to McDonalds, so that there was a 24-hours toilet as well as, um, we were parked under the trees so it had a bit of darkness. (There's) a lot of light there, so it enables sleep and security."

She says rents are now phenomenally high, she can't afford a bond, and has bad credit.

The money she makes from owning and running her own business just isn't enough to cover it.

She says she phoned around emergency housing providers, but they were all full.

"You end up being on the lower end of the scale as far as trying to improve your situation. Yeah, I didn't realise how bad it was actually in New Zealand until I ended up in the situation myself."

Tile on wall of hope with the words - to have a nice happy house

Emergency housing provider De Paul House has a wall of hope. Photo: ( RNZ / Lauren Baker )

Statistics New Zealand defines homelessness as "without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household, or living in uninhabitable housing" and includes living in garages, caravan parks, or friends' houses.

According to Trade Me, the median rent in Auckland in December was just under $500 - not including bills. An adult working full time on minimum wage will earn $590 a week before tax. 

There's no full research into the extent of homelessness within New Zealand.

Last year, the Salvation Army released its Invisible in the Super City report.

Over three months, it surveyed 1202 of the people who asked for help with housing in Auckland - 47 percent were children.

When asked where they slept last night, 25 children said in a backpackers or boarding house, 13 said outside, 30 had slept in a vehicle, while 18 had spent the night in an emergency house or refuge.

Sign and outside of complex

De Paul House on Auckland's North Shore, which offers emergency housing to families Photo: ( RNZ / Lauren Baker )

But although the emergency accommodation is meant to be temporary - some are staying for far longer than the expected three months. One woman has been at North Shore's De Paul House for over a year.

It's a situation Corie Haddock, the co-chair of the NZ coalition to end homelessness, says is causing congestion in the system.

"The emergency accommodation becomes the bottleneck, so you know, as important and essential as the emergency accommodation is, the focus should be that it's a temporary short solution for the issue."

There are problems between Housing New Zealand, and the organisation that's taken over running the waiting list - the Ministry of Social Development, he said. 

Corie Haddock stands in front of a tapas cloth on the wall

Corie Haddock, the co-chair of the NZ Coalition to End Homelessness Photo: ( RNZ / Lauren Baker )

"They're blind to each other. MSD don't know what housing is available, and Housing New Zealand don't know who's looking for housing.

"I think it just slows everything down doesn't it, it means people are in emergency accommodation longer, you know the process moves at a snail's pace for some people."

The Ministry of Social Development has about 100 places on it's Auckland database of emergency providers - but they're almost always full.
In November, the Citizens Advice Bureau reported there was a national shortage of emergency accommodation and for many families that supposed safety net was non existent.

Although some providers are awarded contracts by the government, not all are, and they don't cover the total cost of running the accommodation.

Last year, the government announced $2.5m would be made available to NGOs to deliver more emergency housing. Negotiations are underway to decide which NGOs will receive the funding. 

Support staff are also reporting problems with the Housing New Zealand application system, and despite a clear need, De Paul House says many of the families it works with were refused a place, only to be accepted once they had help from an advocate.

Minister for Social Housing Paula Bennett's portfolio includes both emergency housing, and Housing New Zealand's register, on which there are currently about 4600 waiting applicants.

National MP, Paula Bennett.

Minister for Social Housing, Paula Bennett. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The ministry took over the register as some people on the waiting list were also needing other help and benefits, Ms Bennett says.

It was a way of avoiding doubling up of work, and trying to provide better wraparound services, she says. 

But she acknowledges there have been issues with it.

"We're always learning, developing and improving, and I don't think it's as good as it can get right now but it was a major operation to move that over."

There's recently been a review of the housing register, but she says in some cases, the fault lies with the families themselves.

"What we often look at though, when certainly the media might raise a particular issue with a particular family, is that we don't have all of the information, that their situation's changed very quickly, and they haven't informed us, so they're often not on the right rating that they could be and priority, and we could raise them higher.

"I think it's working better than it has, but we're always open to improvements."

*Some names have been changed to protect people's identities.

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