17 Sep 2020

Covid-19 strain increases gaps in housing, poverty and mental health

7:13 am on 17 September 2020

Communities are struggling to meet increased need for help with housing, income instability and mental health support, a new report shows - and the issues have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Fridge interior almost empty due to economic crisis

File photo. Photo: 123rf

The Salvation Army has just released its State of our Communities Report - and it paints a dire picture of how community social services are being called on to help a rising number of families and people experiencing social strains.

Staff interviewed 14 key community leaders in Rotorua, Queenstown and the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville, and 564 people from these communities, and found many people who hadn't had to rely on community support were seeking it.

"Locals consistently made reports of increased stress, anxiety and hardship that affected peoples' mental health," the church said.

"Existing mental health issues were amplified by job losses, social isolation, lack of income and other social challenges that came with the lockdowns, highlighting the lack of mental health services. Locals in the three areas also pointed to specific mental health issues for children and youth emerging from Covid-19."

Housing problems had got worse in all three communities since the start of the national lockdown, and staff heard reports of homelessness or housing stock - both rentals and homes for sale - that weren't affordable for many.

But the report found the housing problem was especially bad in Queenstown, where a lack of jobs and the difficult situation facing migrant workers were highlighted by respondents from the resort town.

"Often Queenstown is seen as there being no need [for help], people think everyone is rich. I fear that mental health is going to be a huge issue and ... there is very little accessible social assistance and support," one respondent said.

Queenstown in New Zealand, South Island

Queenstown. Photo: 123RF

Robyn Francis who runs Happiness House, a community support centre in the town, said people have lost their jobs but are stuck in expensive leases.

"We're really concerned about what will happen to people, and the levels and the impact anxiety will have on people over such a long period of time, on top of housing and employment issues.

"We have seen a big increase in a demand for our services. I think people were staying away because they thought they could handle it, but now things have gone on for so long people are doing it tough," she said.

People who worked in tourism are now driving hours south to work on dairy farms in order to cover their rent.

"People were earning good money in tourism, but then have lost their job and therefore cannot cover their rent - they're locked into leases that they can't get out of."

"One of the things I would like to see reviewed is the tenancy laws, so that if people experience hardship they can ask for their rent to be lowered. I think for some people even saving $50 to $100 a week on rent would make a huge impact," Francis said.

Tiny Deane, founder and chief executive of Visions of a Helping Hand Charitable Trust Rotorua.

Tiny Deane. Photo: Liu Chen / RNZ

The report found people in Rotorua were concerned about low wages and lack of employment opportunities.

Visions of a Helping Hand is the charitable trust in the town which helps people into housing. Its founder Tiny Deane said demand for their housing services has quadrupled.

"Motels are full of homeless people because there are no jobs and no place for them to go and rent at an affordable rate, rates here are sky-high it's just like Auckland."

Tiny Deane said Covid-19 has pushed a lot of people over the edge and people are struggling more than ever.

"For the people who have social issues, just basic mental health or drug and addiction, there is definitely a bigger need for more social services."

Visions of a Helping Hand just helped a family of eight into a rental house. The mother who has six children said she was beyond grateful.

"I have never been poor, I have never seen poverty, but not long before lockdown our rental property was sold and then we struggled to get a new one, so we ended up in Air BnBs, but that's not financially viable.

"We ended up homeless. I don't know if it's because we have six children, but we couldn't even manage to get viewings for homes," the mother said.

With help from the charity she is now in a five bedroom home in a nice suburb in Rotorua.

"I just can't wait to have a dining room table that we can all sit at and eat a meal together, it's the best day ever. I mean we can finally get back on track and save towards our own home."

She said her situation goes to show that even families with no debt and a decent income can find themselves in hardship.

No caption

Photo: 123rf

The turbulent job market caused by the pandemic was biting hard for those out of work, and had also increased financial strains and mental health stresses, the report said.

Respondents from Johnsonville, an urban community in the northern suburbs of Wellington, reported stresses from housing insecurity.

One person told the surveyors that the family's tight budget meant they did not have the use of a car.

"I am struggling to get a job. My mental health is on the line. The benefit is not enough to help cover food. I pay rent, expenses and day-care.

"When it's raining my kid and I take Uber to go to his day-care. I feel like I have failed."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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