20 May 2016

Homelessness debate: 'I feel ashamed of our country'

9:56 am on 20 May 2016

As the debate over homelessness continues, Tom Furley meets an Auckland man who has found a roof over his head after six months living in his car.

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Rima Ihaka lived in his car for six months. (File pic) Photo: 123rf.com

Rim Ihaka's unwarranted and unregistered Nissan Maxima was his only home for six months.

Set up in an Auckland park, there was a radio, DVDs and a portable DVD player in the front seat. The back seat housed pots and pans, a little cooker, a loaf of bread and his blankets. His clothes filled the boot, while towels over the windows kept the light out at night.

The 40-year-old - who moved to Auckland three years ago seeking work - had been forced to live in his car in the park since November, after struggling to stay employed.

He told RNZ News he tried to get help from Work and Income, but had to go through a stand down period.

"I just ended up stuck in a rut. I couldn't do anything because I had no money so I had to start looking at ways to make money and it just got hard."

With nowhere to go he parked up at Bruce Pulman Park, where he had seen people in cars.

There he found a community, with up to nine car loads parked together for safety each night, and four or five people banding together for meals.

"Meeting these people who became my family there. It started taking the pressure [off], I stopped feeling so depressed but started feeling happy. I'd lost my job but I'd found another family. I'd do anything for them. I had no money and they looked after me."

"A lot of people aren't forced out, a lot of people choose to leave because it's better for them because it's too expensive to live in a house. I suppose some people have been forced out and got nowhere to go so they move to parks."

Turning it around

But after months of living in his car, things were looking up for Mr Ihaka.

While Work and Income has been under intense political pressure to deal with people without homes this week, he said the agency came through for him.

A case officer found out he was homeless and stepped in - paying for the $2000 worth of repairs to his car, as well as the registration and warranty. While Mr Ihaka had to pay it back, he said he was not phased.

"It's only a small payback, but it's helped me out in a big way. A really big way."

He is due to start work as a security worker, and has moved in with a family of five into in a Salvation Army-owned house for low-income families, not far from the park.

"It's bigger than my car," he joked.

"It actually makes you feel like a person not like some caged rat or something. It's really nice, you can actually relax and you're able to lock your doors and not listen to the outside world."

Paying it back

Mr Ihaka said he planned to save up and move into a big house, so more people from the park can move in, and to volunteer on his free days at the Salvation Army.

"I have been lucky with what's happened for me. But I don't deserve it any more than anyone else so why isn't anyone else getting the opportunities that I have been dealt with? It's not fair"

"It's heartbreaking. To go from something to nothing and then back up to something again and then you're watching people around you and some of them are just starting to wither away, some of them are just getting sicker. It's not good. It's gotten to the point where some have turned to drugs because of the pain.

Mr Ihaka said the people at the park were not looking for handouts, they just wanted a helping hand.

"I'd like to see more understanding put into why a lot of people are doing what they're doing, sleeping in their cars. The government needs to be able to really talk about it because all they're hearing is surveys surveys surveys. Surveys aren't nothing, they need to get down there with the people.

"I actually feel ashamed of what our country is like. We shouldn't be like this. We're not like America, we don't have wars, we don't have nuclear weapons. Our country is green but we still have poverty. The biggest question is why."

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