Kids living in vans? I'm mad as hell

3:22 pm on 10 June 2016

OPINION: How many 11-year-olds does it take to change a nation? Hopefully just one.


When children are living in cars, it means we're in crisis. Photo: 123RF

If you listened to a succinct and quietly ambitious girl, known as TA, call out our Prime Minister on Checkpoint on Wednesday night, you might have felt a twinge of shame.

Maybe you even shed a tear or two as she said "it's okay" about just missing out on a scholarship to private school St Cuthbert's because it was a bit tricky reading while living in a van with her parents and five siblings. But hopefully you felt more than just sad or ashamed. Hopefully, like me, you got mad as hell.

"Try walking in my shoes, it's not actually that easy." This was the challenge TA set to Prime Minister John Key. But really it's a challenge for us all.

Because this isn't good enough. Children should not be living in cars. As a mother, I struggle getting my kids to eat their greens and keeping our draughty rented house warm enough on a budget, but having to worry about where to go to the toilet or find nutritious food when you don't have a kitchen, or whether your children can get their homework done by streetlight with younger siblings climbing on them, is another thing altogether.

Prime Minister John Key at a media standup following the release of Budget 2016.

John Key Photo: RNZ/Elliott Childs

The John Key approach to our burgeoning homelessness problem has been to apply sticking plasters to the issues as the media exposes them. And not even fresh, clean sticking plasters - no, he prefers the kind you find under your shoe, already used.

People living in cars? Offer to swoop in with a team of "flying squads" - complete strangers with no experience in dealing with vulnerable and understandably wary people to jeopardise the careful ongoing work of existing frontline services and then claim they didn't want help. Or provide funding for emergency accommodation that, it turns out, will mostly be used for motel stays costing upwards of $1000 per week, but not before leaving dozens of families in massive debt to WINZ for trying to get their kids out of the winter cold for a few nights. Or shipping the homeless away from their support networks with a $5000 'incentive'.

This is a crisis. A crisis that disproportionally affects those already in need.

And families like TA's are just the tip of the iceberg - her mother has a job and yet they still can't afford to live in a house. That's not even getting on to our rough-sleeping homeless population, an accurate number of which we still can't grasp. Why? Because if the government started collecting data on homelessness they would then have to define it as a distinct social issue - and allocate budget and services accordingly. You know, like most other developed nations.

In other words, if you put your hands over your ears and say "la la la" loud enough, the problem doesn't exist.

Thankfully there are people who care a great deal and are doing something meaningful to help - Te Puea Marae has taken in TA and her family, along with 29 other families. But this is not a long-term solution.

Te Puea Marae

Auckland's Te Puea Marae has opened its doors to people who are homeless. Photo: RNZ / Shannon Haunui-Thompson

Here are two things you can do today, right now in fact: sign a petition to get the government to take homelessness seriously and create a portfolio and long-term strategy specifically for dealing with this issue. And help one another - Te Puea Marae, the Salvation Army, Lifewise and others are filling gaps that shouldn't have to be filled, but while they do, let's help them. Donate food, blankets, money, and just for a moment, imagine what it's like to walk in TA's shoes.

*Bonnie Sumner is an Auckland writer, mother and is involved with Gimme Shelter Aotearoa.