A homeless mother of six young children and a newborn baby says she had no option but to pitch a tent in a Hawke's Bay park during a storm after Work and Income refused to help her.
Mariska Kruger, 31, said she had sought help from the government agency for several weeks because she and her seven children, aged between seven weeks and 11 years old, had nowhere to go after their rental was put up for sale and they were unable to find a new one.
Despite multiple pleas for help in the weeks leading up to their departure, Work and Income repeatedly told her there was no accommodation available, Kruger said.
"They just said, 'There's nothing we can do for you, there is no housing'."
Kruger called Work and Income again on 11 February, the day before she had to leave the rental property, and told them she had nowhere else to go.
"A lady I spoke to just said to me, 'I'm sorry we cannot help you,'" Kruger said.
She was told to ask her landlord for more time, which Kruger had already done, but it was not an option as her landlord would be renovating the place before putting it on the market, which would leave the property without water, Kruger said.
"I said [to Work and Income] I'm gonna end up in the park with my seven kids, and she said to me, 'If you stay in the house you won't have water so that's the same as at the park, there's no water there either'. She hung up the phone," Kruger said.
The next morning, as rain from ex-tropical cyclone Dovi lashed Hawke's Bay and created havoc across the North Island, Kruger closed the door on her rental for the last time, packed the kids into her car and drove to The Warehouse where she spent her last $240 on two tents.
She then drove 15km to Puketapu Park, on the outskirts of Napier, a freedom camping site for self-contained vehicles only.
"I just told them we are gonna go sleep in tents. They were quite excited ... but little did they know what was actually happening."
But the family were saved from spending the night thanks to the generosity of a stranger.
Napier resident Lisa Cunliffe spotted the family while at the park with her daughter and felt "something was off".
"I walked over and was just kind of like, 'I bought a bag of apples, would you like them? Is everything okay?'
"And that's when she pointed inside the tent and was just like, 'No, I'm not okay. I've got a newborn baby," Cunliffe recalled.
"I looked down and saw the baby lying there wrapped up in a blanket but there was no other bedding in there. My heart just totally went out to her. I could just feel her grave situation."
With the bad weather setting in, she invited the family to spend the night at her place. "I kept on waking up through the night and going, oh my goodness, thank goodness they're not in that tent. There were torrential downpours the whole next day."
Cunliffe had been supporting the family since, helping Kruger deal with Work and Income and other agencies. She helped Kruger contact Housing First, which put the family in a Hastings holiday park for a few nights until Work and Income found emergency accommodation at the Bluewater Hotel in Napier.
Kruger was now living there with her youngest three children after sending her four eldest to stay with family in Auckland.
"It's very hard to be separated."
The Bluewater charged Work and Income $4,640.02 for a 14-night stay, of which Kruger must contribute $259.98 from her benefit, to be paid in instalments.
While she was grateful for the temporary accommodation, she felt let down by Work and Income's initial refusal to help. She was also struggling to settle in at the hotel which forbade visitors, did not have proper cooking facilities and she found it strange her room was also used by staff to store supplies.
"I'll come home at random times and they are in my room," she said.
She was desperate to find a place to call home. "I've literally applied for most of the properties on Trade Me. I've heard back on three of them but it's all been declined, which I'm guessing is [because of] bad credit and because they don't like Work and Income clients. Because my references are all good references."
Work and Income responds
Work and Income said it empathised with the "difficult circumstances" Kruger and her children faced.
"Our staff did everything they could to help Mariska find somewhere to stay on 11 February. They faced considerable challenges because of the short notice we received, her previous record with emergency housing providers in the area, and the wider context of significant housing shortages," Ministry for Social Development regional director Michelle McNabb said.
She disputed a Work and Income staffer hung up on Kruger when she asked for help. "We have no record of a disconnected call on February 11."
Mcnabb said Kruger was offered petrol vouchers so she could travel to stay with family or friends, but Kruger said no such offer was made.
Larger families with complex needs faced "additional difficulties" finding emergency accommodation, McNabb said. "In this case there was just nowhere available."
The Taradale Marae, which was considered an emergency provider of last resort and where Kruger and her family had stayed once before, was not considered a suitable option on 11 February, McNabb said.
"Our understanding from a phone conversation with marae management was that Mariska and her whānau were told they were no longer able to stay. The marae later sent us an email which wished Mariska the best and expressed they were willing to consider her staying there again in future. However, based on the earlier phone conversation with marae management, we did not feel confident we could use the marae for emergency accommodation for Mariska on the weekend of February 11."
Kruger was now on the highest priority rating for a home and had been assigned an intensive case manager, McNabb said.
The Bluewater Hotel did not respond to requests for comment, but the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) said the cost of Kruger's unit reflected that it could accommodate up to nine people.
"We understand there are cupboards in the unit in which things like spare microwaves, toasters and electric jugs are stored. The property owner told us staff only enter to perform regularly scheduled cleaning, and if they need to get anything from the cupboards, they only do so at the same time as this cleaning occurs."
The Bluewater Hotel was paid 2250 emergency housing grants totalling $5.03million between July 2017 and June 2021, according to MSD figures, making it the second highest paid emergency accommodation provider in Napier after the Fountain Court Motel, which was paid $5.5m over the period.
Kruger said there was only one thing in the world that she wanted: "A house. A place to call home for me and my kids."