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‘Digging the hole and filling it up forever’: the search for a fix to the homeless crisis

Blaming homelessness on bad choices misses the core of the problem  – we created the circumstances that allow such deprivation to flourish, Moira Lawler of Lifewise tells the Spinoff.

Images of families living in cars and dilapidated garages thrust the plight of homeless people into headlines in 2016. One of the groups at the sharp end of the crisis is Lifewise, an Auckland community social development organisation focused on homelessness.

Toby Manhire speaks with Lifewise CEO Moira Lawler about the scale of the problem in Auckland and the government response, her dismay at the council binning the affordability requirement in the Unitary Plan, and Āwhina, a new site created with groups such as the City Mission, targeted at those at risk of becoming homeless.

The Spinoff: The homeless issue in Auckland sprung into the national media agenda halfway through the year – did that take you by surprise?

Moira Lawler: No. We were aware of a growing bubble of homelessness, that sort of matches growing inequalities and Auckland’s housing crisis, so it’s no accident that homelessness is on the rise, particularly in Auckland but also other parts of New Zealand.

Moira Lawler with mayoral candidates during the recent local body campaign. Photo: Lifewise

Moira Lawler with mayoral candidates during the recent local body campaign. Photo: Lifewise

Do you think enough steps have been taken by the government to address the problem since it hit headlines?

What is worth noting about the publicity is, I think, the groundswell of support which drove the government reaction came from the realisation that, in particular, we have families with children in cars. And I think that’s no accident, because it’s easy when you look at a rough sleeper on Queen Street to assume it’s their fault. It’s much more difficult to look at babies and toddlers in cars and assume they’ve done something wrong to end up in a car. I think that is what has driven the interest, although that issue has always been there, people like the Monte Cecilia Housing Trust and the Salvation Army have been dealing with that issue for a long time. But it has certainly got a lot worse.

And it terms of what the government has done, I think it is scrambling a little bit to provide crisis response solutions. And I get that, because this is a crisis. But that is around emergency beds, a week in a motel, funding to go to another centre if you have family there that can support you. All of these things, to get people off the streets – and that’s a compassionate response and what New Zealanders want to see – I guess our concern is two things. First, our responses need to have a chance of being effective, and that’s why we support Housing First, and that’s why we’re very pleased that the minister has understood that Housing First is an evidence based model that has a good chance of being effective, so that’s good.

But I guess what the cross-party homelessness inquiry pointed out is the rise in homelessness is structural, it’s not more people making bad choices. It’s the fact that family incomes are not keeping up with the costs of housing. And we have tenancy legislation that makes it easy to flick tenants than negotiate with tenants. So unless we deal with the systemic issues we’re going to spend a lot of money at the symptom end. That’s our message to government. It’s not something we’re responsible for. We can continue to promote models that are effective and deliver those models ourselves, but we can’t make New Zealand a more equal place without government changing some of the drivers of poverty and economic exclusion.

Do you have a view on the recent debate around measuring child poverty?

I think Child Poverty Action Group and Alan Johnson and others have really already answered that. There are internationally accepted measures of child poverty, they’re just unattractive to government because they sort of make the issue more universal.

There is something very interesting in our political culture and our mindset around wanting to take targeted approaches, wanting to choose the people or the families that are the most chronic or needy, wanting to somehow identify the set of people that – in fact I’ve heard this language in government – to indentify a set of people that are costing us the most resource therefore fix them and move on. I don’t think we understand that these are universal issues, so for every chronic rough sleeper you see on the street, there’s a young person who needs support they’re not getting, they’re just better at hiding it, because they’re mobile and they have big social networks. Or there’s a working family that may be housed today but in a month won’t be because when their rent goes up they can’t pay it. So I just think we need to understand that these issues are more broadly part of the way we’re organising our economy and our society at the moment, rather than holes that only some groups are falling into.

If you just sort the needs of the most needy – and that is important – without changing our systems, there will be another group that falls into that whole. The vulnerability is now pretty widespread in our community. That’s what this homelessness crisis has demonstrated. There are working families sleeping in cars. So you do have to ask yourself, how do we allow our economy to be structured where that’s possible?

In the Unitary Plan debate recently, the affordable housing requirement was removed, the argument being that if it was addressed on a macro scale that was more likely to be effective than individual developments having a required provision. What did you make of that?

Speaking from our involvement in Community Housing Aotearoa and the Auckland Community Housing Providers Network, we were really disappointed to see that lost. Because what it suggests is there are appropriate places to put affordable housing. Which, if you think about it, the corollary of that is that there are “appropriate places” for poor people to live. And they’re not where we’re building our housing. That’s essentially what we’re saying. That we prefer to identify parts of Auckland where we think there should be affordable housing and where those people should live. And we know – any western country in the world knows – that is a failed model. You can’t just pile an intensified cohort of vulnerable people and families in one place and hope for the best. All sorts of housing should be affordable in every kind of community, and scattered models are the most successful models. There is plenty of overseas evidence of where you regulate to ensure that affordable housing is part of every development you get a good result. And you also get smarter, more robust affordable housing, too.

You mentioned before the plight of tenants. Is that something that has got lost a bit in the debate over housing, and the difficulty of getting on the housing ladder and so on? There are some people for whom buying a property has never been an option.

Absolutely. Until we have tenancy legislation that offers rights to tenants, that enables them to assume they’re going to be somewhere long term, that enables them to establish themselves in a house and in a community in a way that matches their lifestyle, then people are between a rock and a hard place. You know, homeless people lived in houses. Homeless people are people who have been evicted from houses. Yes, there are a complex range of reasons for why that is, but it’s getting less and less complex, I guess would be my message. It’s more and more about the money than it used to be.

I guess that’s the message of Te Puea Marae. You have to ask why was it relatively easy to house families who were experiencing homelessness, using community resources. And I think the answer is because for those families it was largely about the money. Not about mental health or addiction issues, or drinking or gambling, or any of the other things we like to associate with homelessness. It’s about the money.

What is the story with Āwhina?

Part of what we are doing is trying to house people who are chronically in longterm homelessness, because they are the most vulnerable and they are the people that the system is the least effective at supporting. So as a result they are the people who go in and out of every available resource – using a lot of resource but most importantly using a lot of resource and not having their needs met. So the Housing First model suggests that if you can crack it for those people and really offer them housing that works for them, then you’ve lifted a huge weight off the system and you’re sustaining some of our most vulnerable people, the people that are likely to be attacked in central Auckland. You’re offering them a safe haven. That’s the model.

awhina

If you’re going to do that, because it’s quite intensive work, then we also need to have tools available to people who don’t need a lot of intensive support, are able to take some steps to house themselves, are able to work out what to do next if they have access to information and support. So part of what we’re doing within our service is things like developing a peer support programme, so people who have experience, who’ve been out there, who kind of know what people need to know, are able to offer support, and we’re also increasingly offering online tools, so if it’s just that you don’t know, but you’re pretty savvy, particularly for example with young people – you hear young people over and over again saying, “I didn’t know what Winz was, I didn’t know I was entitled to support” – the whole range of people who, if they have access to the right information at the right time, can work a lot out for themselves.

So Āwhina is part of that approach. It’s a website that’s been put together with agencies and people with experience of homelessness. It’s really a first port of call for basic frontline information about where do you go, what can you get, who’s available to help. It enables people to get a leg-up without having to wait for social worker appointment, etcetera.

It’s interesting to see the different groups – yourselves, the City Mission and others –working together. Is that something that happens much?

I think it’s emerging more and more, as we hear from people using our services that actually it would be helpful for them if it was very clear this is what Lifewise does, this is what City Mission does, this is what we do together, if we have a kind of one-door approach. Because otherwise people, as well as just existing without secure housing have to negotiate their way through organisations then that’s just time-wasting and irritating for people. So increasingly we are working together and it’s working out well.

On the whole as you arrive at work are you feeling optimistic? Is it hard to stay optimistic?

I’m really optimistic about the work that we’re doing to try and demonstrate that we don’t have to live with homelessness. I’m very optimistic about that. Part of our challenge, though, is staying strategic in terms of what has to change in our society, in our structures, in our policies, to deal with this issue upstream. And I think we can’t afford in some ways to get completely focused on dealing with the issue and forget to keep articulating that we’re creating this issue. This is an issue of our own creation. It’s like child poverty, it’s like all of these societal issues. We created it. So we have to think really hard about how we can stop creating it. Otherwise we’re going to be digging the hole and filling it up forever.

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