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A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland.  (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland. (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

MediaMay 22, 2018

No, Reuters, we don’t have tens of thousands sleeping in cars and on the street

A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland.  (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland. (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

Homelessness in New Zealand is a very serious problem, and it’s too important to be muddied by misinformation, writes Toby Manhire.

One of the world’s gold-standard news agencies yesterday shone a light on a big New Zealand problem, homelessness.

The headline: “Left behind – why boomtown New Zealand has a homelessness crisis”. And the introduction, in print and video reports: “New Zealand’s dairy-fuelled economy has for several years been the envy of the rich world, yet despite the rise in prosperity tens of thousands of residents are sleeping in cars, shop entrances and alleyways.”

The juxtaposition is compelling and well made. The number is compelling and nonsense.

There are not tens of thousands of New Zealanders sleeping in cars, shop entrances and alleyways. There just aren’t.

No question, the homelessness problem is very often hidden from sight, invisible to those of us living luckier lives – but surely not so invisible that a population the size of a city such as Whanganui could be sleeping rough around New Zealand.

Earlier this month the Guardian reported that “An estimated 40,000 people live in cars, tents and garages amid a chronic housing shortage in the nation of 4.7 million people”. Adding garages to the equation might make some difference, but still: a chronic shortage housing, yes; 40,000 people — a population the size of Whanganui — living in cars, tents and garages? No.

That came in a report (see also Canadian public radio) which had a heroically absurd standfirst bolted above it: “New Zealand government announces $100m to get 40,000 homeless people into accommodation before winter hits”. For all that Phil Twyford might thump his chest with ambition, he never announced any such thing.

The government press release in fact pledged this: “By the end of winter, we will have more than 1,500 additional transitional, public and Housing First places, compared to the end of last year.” And to confuse matters further, if you’re using the measure that would define 40,000-plus New Zealanders as homeless, then many of those 1,500 brought out of the cold under the government’s $100 million initiative would be put in accommodation that would see them categorised as … homeless.

So where did this 40,000 confusion spring from?

The authoritative study on homelessness in New Zealand is Severe Housing Deprivation in Aotearoa/New Zealand: 2001-2013, published by Kate Amore in 2016 as part of the He Kainga Oranga/Housing & Health Research Programme at the University of Otago, Wellington. The PDF is here.

“The severely housing deprived or ‘homeless’ population has grown in size and scale over the last three censuses, at an accelerating rate,” writes Amore, introducing the key findings. “The prevalence of homelessness grew by 15% between the 2006 and 2013 censuses, compared with a 9% increase between 2001 and 2006. In 2013, there were at least 41,000 homeless New Zealanders, or about one in every 100 New Zealanders.”

It’s a shocking number – and it’s a depressingly safe bet that the number has grown considerably since. But the report at no point suggests that the 41,000 figure, the one in 100, refers to people sleeping rough.

In a release accompanying the report’s publication, Amore put it like this: “If the homeless population were a hundred people, 70 are staying with extended family or friends in severely crowded houses, 20 are in a motel, boarding house or camping ground, and 10 are living on the street, in cars, or in other improvised dwellings. They all urgently need affordable housing.”

The majority of those 41,207 people who are severely housing deprived – 28,563 of them – are classified as living “as a temporary resident in a severely crowded, permanent private dwelling due to a lack of access to minimally adequate housing”.

That is miserable and unacceptable for a well-off nation, but it is not the same as living in an alleyway or a car. The study counts 1,413 people living rough or in an improvised dwelling and 2,784 in a mobile dwelling, with another 549 in NGO-run emergency accommodation and 1,724 in camping grounds or motor camps.

Those numbers draw on census and emergency housing provider data, and may well underestimate the number of people sleeping rough. It will almost certainly have grown in the interim. But it is nothing like “tens of thousands … sleeping in cars, shop entrances and alleyways”.

Both the Reuters and Guardian reports also state that New Zealand has the highest rate of homelessness among the OECD club of the world’s richest countries. You can hardly blame them for that – it’s a claim that has been made, based on OECD data, in a Yale study, and repeated ad infinitum by media everywhere, including a fulminating media release by the Labour Party in opposition.

But – really? Here’s a chart, based on OECD numbers, from that oft-cited Yale study.

New Zealand has a homelessness problem. No question about that. But is it plausible that New Zealand has a homelessness problem five times worse than the United States? Twenty-odd times worse than Spain? Anyone who has travelled around those places would find that hard to credit.

At the foot of the chart, the fine print begins: “Definitions and policies on homelessness are mixed among and within nations …” The definitions are dramatically different, of course, and so the chart is ridiculous.

The Yale study seeks to highlight the severity of homelessness in the developed world, to urge political action. The Reuters piece is full of moving testimony from people at the sharp end of the housing crisis. Homelessness and housing insecurity in New Zealand is hugely important and worthy of international attention. But it should be important enough, too, to warrant reporting without the wild numbers.

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