16 May 2016

"The whole system is at crisis"

8:10 pm on 16 May 2016

Social workers on the frontlines of Auckland's housing crisis say the reality is families with children are asking for help - but aren't getting it.

People living in a garage in a South Auckland suburb

One Auckland mum has been living in a garage with her six children - but there are conditions. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Many families are bounced between government agencies, and some spend years waiting for a roof above their heads, they say.

Earlier today Prime Minister John Key told Morning Report there weren't enough houses for everyone, but he was confident those badly in need of help would get it.

"My really strong advice is, go and see Work and Income, and we'll see what we can do."

He said people often didn't understand what was available to them.

"My experience with Work and Income is they do their very best to support people in those situations, especially when children are involved."

But some social workers have said the reality isn't so simple.

For four years, Metua has been working with families in Manurewa that have fallen through the cracks, including one family with seven children, including a 10-year-old with disabilities.

"They don't have a home, but they have three families who have offered them a house daily.

"Tonight they could be at the dad's family's house. Dad and three of the older children will sleep in the van."

Tomorrow, they pack up and move to another garage.

"They pack up, and they get their children ready for school, then they move on to another family's house."

They've been on a Housing New Zealand list for two years.

Another case involves a 29-year-old single mum and her six children, who live in a garage with a hole in the roof.

"You can see through it and you can see the sky."

"So mum patched it up with a black rubbish bag, and she uses that single garage as a living area, for cooking, sleeping, for the children to study."

It's a tiny space she had to turn into a home - but a home with conditions.

"The owner of the garage says they can only go inside and use the bathroom before 6pm, after that she's no allowed in there."

"So this mum has gone to public parks to use the bathroom for her and her children."

Eventually, Work and Income move her into a motel, but after a few weeks she realised she's expected to pay them back for the accommodation.

A garage in South Auckand

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

It's one of many stories.

The clinical leader for Mangere Plunket, Rose Clark, said the health cost for these families was worrying.

"It's bad for everybody, but it's particularly bad for the babies."

"The garages are really damp, and really cold. These children are a lot more prone to getting chest infections, like Bronchiolitis, and as they get older, there's a lot of skin infections, cellulitis, scabies because of overcrowded conditions."

She said for some parents, it's difficult to break out of a cycle of poverty and find regular work.

For others, it means both parents working day and night, and it's still not enough to find accommodation, or even buy food for the week.

"Probably three or four times a week, I'd be getting food parcels from different agencies.

"A nurse would go around and see a pantry that's completely empty, and the kids haven't eaten since yesterday lunchtime."

She said some families will then be told they can't have more than one or two food parcels a week.

"It can only happen a certain amount of times, then that agency will say no, we can't do that anymore."

Lifewise chief executive Moira Lawler said the system was completely under-resourced.

"The whole system is at crisis, so something quite fundamental needs to happen."

She said real solutions were needed, both for long term and the short term.

"We are desperately needing to invest in more affordable housing."

"We need a system that identifies people that are desperate for housing and prioritises their needs, and makes enough financial support available, so they can afford to be housed, and afford to stay there."

She said when social institutions like Housing New Zealand were expected to return $118 million in dividend to the government, it was clear the policy approaches were wrong.

"Why do we need our social housing to generate a profit for the government, when we know there isn't enough housing and people can't be housed?"

She said housing was a human rights, and shouldn't be looked at as a commodity.

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