Opinion: Heartbreak motel? Emergency housing welcoming, but unacceptable

6:02 pm on 11 May 2021

By Chris Ford *

Opinion - Recently, there have been a plethora of media stories about the adverse side of living in emergency/transitional housing. As a person who's been there, done that, I can now say that while my experience was socially embarrassing, at least it was not as negative as the experiences some homeless people in other parts of the country have encountered.

Motel generic sign United States

Chris Ford spent almost a year in emergency accommodation - starting just before the March alert level 4 lockdown in 2020 (file image). Photo: 123rf

It's true to say that some people's experiences of being housed in motels and hotels has not been great.

I've read stories both in mainstream and social media about the appalling living conditions that some people have been subjected to, including having to reside in overpriced, dilapidated rooms, experiencing harassment from unsafe neighbours, over-excessive rules and finding limited space for children to learn and play in.

I read some of those stories while living in a motel unit in Central Dunedin.

Honestly, I was horrified at what I was reading, yet I couldn't have had a better experience under the most trying of circumstances while I was living there.

However, the motel wasn't entirely perfect, as many of the units were understandably small (a factor which even the motelier conceded) and it was heartbreaking watching one of my neighbours raise a young baby who was born soon after its parents arrived in emergency accommodation.

Yet I saw them raising their baby in a loving, caring way and it even became a favourite of the fantastically friendly cleaning staff who positively cooed all over it.

That was one of the things that made my motel stay and that of my fellow homeless neighbours bearable - the excellent motel management, staff and in particular, wraparound support provided by social workers from the Salvation Army.

I believe that without each of these elements working together, the stories that have emanated from other homeless, motel-housed Kiwis would have happened where I was staying too.

Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher.

Chris Ford Photo: Supplied / Chris Ford

Fortunately, from my observations, they didn't.

The various neighbours I had - including a Māori whānau who worked as shearers; a part-time mechanic and his partner (the parents of the baby); and a retired truck driver - were all friendly and supportive of not just me but of each other.

The moteliers were also friendly, supportive and welcoming to all who stayed there.

Honestly, I can't recall any instances of domestic violence, serious drug or alcohol use, noisy neighbours (except on one occasion which was quickly dealt with by the motel owners) or harassment by anybody during my stay.

I can say that I felt really safe during my time in the motel and found it restful despite it being in close proximity to Dunedin's CBD.

If you're wondering about the living space, I had one of the more spacious units given that as a wheelchair user, I required access to a wet floor shower and railed toilet.

In fact, all of the units in the complex had modern interiors with each possessing a small kitchenette and were also warm and dry, particularly during the autumn and winter months.

Therefore, I couldn't have asked for a better, albeit temporary, space to have spent all of the Covid-19 lockdown and remainder of 2020 in. I say this because I moved into my emergency accommodation on 21 March last year, the same day that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern placed the country under Covid-19 restrictions for the first time and only left the accommodation on 5 March this year, two weeks shy of that anniversary.

It took me all that time - 11 months - to find a permanent home as we face as a country not only a general shortage of affordable housing but, more specifically, accessible housing which can meet the needs of disabled people (such as myself) who live with mobility impairment.

Indeed, the absolute requirement for me to have accessible accommodation was one key reason why the Ministry of Social Development (which administers the social housing wait list) accepted me as an emergency and then temporary housing client despite my income (given that I work full-time with two jobs) being over the limit.

Through my stay in one of this country's growing number of motels for the homeless, I gained an invaluable insight into New Zealand's increasingly overstretched transitional housing system.

While being in a motel was certainly more preferable to living in very unsafe, inaccessible accommodation or, even worse, on the street, I am one among many who still say that this is an unacceptable state of affairs.

The Labour government can and must do better by engaging in a mass industrial-scale state house building programme on the same scale as that engaged in by the first Labour government in the 1930s.

Nothing more and nothing less will suffice.

Otherwise, there will be more people like me who will continue to live in Aotearoa's growing number of (to paraphrase Elvis) heartbreak motels for the homeless.

* Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher. He also works as Senior Kaituitui for Disabled Persons Assembly New Zealand and as a research assistant at the University of Otago. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

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