While welcoming this month's benefit increase, a group of South Auckland budgeters say it is going to require more than a few dollars to fix the "horrifying" debt faced by so many of their clients.
$30,000 - That's the average debt of one of St Vincent de Paul's Ōtāhuhu centre budgeting clients.
$400 - The going rate for a "tiny cockroach infested room" in one of the many boarding houses around Ōtāhuhu.
$278.50 - The new Jobseeker Support rate for a single adult over 25, an amount which was recently increased by $20. Most of the clients at 'Vinnies', as the budgeting and food bank service is colloquially known, also receive an extra $165 accommodation supplement and $83 temporary additional support payment.
$0 - The amount many of the 129 clients at the centre are left with, after paying rent, servicing debt and buying basic necessities.
Behind the numbers
At the beginning of this month the government increased benefits, with a second $55 top up coming on 1 April 2022, bringing benefits up to levels recommended by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group.
Vinnies centre manager Renee Joseph said the changes were a "step in the right direction but more needs to be done sooner".
Joseph leads a team of four budgeters who spend their days finding ways to eke out extra cash for their clients, either through slicing and dicing their entitlements or advocating with government agencies and finance companies to ensure those they help are getting a fair deal.
The crew includes Alanah Bacon, a no-nonsense South Aucklander with over a decade's experience helping clients at both St Vincent de Paul and The Salvation Army; Jordan Cooke, a fresh-faced computer science grad turned financial mentor; and Simon Collins, the recently retired NZ Herald social issues reporter.
The centre also gives out 120 food parcels a week as well as clothing and bedding. It is currently facing a blanket shortage due to demand driven by the recent cold snap.
Bacon said their clients presented with some of the "most complex" situations, due to substance dependency and mental health issues, but also because they were preyed on by a range of unscrupulous cash lenders and pawn shop dealers operating in the area.
"Our client base owes well over $3 million and it is mostly to finance companies. They tend to have debts on several cars that have all been repossessed, but they are still paying debts on all of them.
"Pretty much everything in their budget is already committed, so they're basically just living off food parcels and that's how they come to us through the food bank."
Other than bad debt, the group says housing is the biggest issue.
Their clients face the unenviable choice of sleeping in a park or taking up a room in a crowded boarding house, often with no heating, locked windows and shabbily furnished with dirty or mouldy mattresses.
"People are paying $400 for a tiny cockroach-infested room, with a shared bathroom and kitchen and because the government is contracting [the boarding houses] to do it, landlords know they can charge that much," Bacon said.
And with the recent benefit increases, the budgeters expect rents to rise as well.
"Give them six months and they will have increased rents," Bacon said.
"Landlords are taking advantage of the housing situation. You see all these brand new motels being built along Great South Road, and they're not building them for the tourist market, it's for emergency housing."
Cooke said they tred to get their clients to complain about their housing conditions, but it was often too risky given their desperation to keep a roof over their heads.
"We've heard stories of how boarding houses are linked to gangs or managers who sell drugs, but people are too scared to say anything because of the potential repercussions."
Having recently retired from reporting on issues like inequality and poverty, Collins has still been surprised by the "horrifying" levels of debt faced by many of his clients.
He is particularly concerned that benefit increases did not take into account the higher costs of living faced by those in Auckland.
"It's skewed against the most needy," he said.
"The across-the-board benefit increases are not well targeted to meet the greatest needs in our society, which are the high rents faced by low-income people in our biggest cities. The increases are hugely welcome, of course, but we also need reform of the supplementary assistance for housing."
Hope amidst the heartache
Despite the bleak circumstances faced by their clients, Joseph appreciates the government's efforts to reform the welfare sector.
"If there hadn't been a change of government, I can safely say I wouldn't have stayed in this role given how things were in such a state of crisis, without any sign of change," she said.
"We don't have the literal stream of people coming in the door of people who are sleeping in the parks, like we did.
"There is now a structure in place, but the challenge is to make sure the structure can deal with the capacity."
Joseph said she had also seen an improvement in the Ministry of Social Development's (MSD) treatment of beneficiaries.
She said the change has been apparent in many areas of its operation, from basic things like letting beneficiaries get a cup of water or use a toilet at a Work and Income office, to taking a more reasonable approach when considering complex scenarios.
"I've been encouraged by the communication and the positive immediate responses to people's circumstances. Even with the recent tornado and back to the March lockdown, we've found there's been immediate responses from MSD for people needing support."
The boarding house industry is one area she would like to see further reform.
"Auckland Council and MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] need to figure out an appropriate, regulated and enforced approach to boarding houses for keeping them up to a good healthy and safety standard.
"Many of these houses have operated with slum-like conditions, with fire access issues, windows that don't open, fridges are locked and some tenants aren't even allowed to use heaters.
"It's better than being homeless, but you're still grouping people together under dire circumstances and conditions, so it's our responsibility to keep the awareness and pressure up."
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