There’s a block of houses in Hamilton that exists as some kind of sad metaphor. It sits in the middle of tidy suburban streets and it lines a small part of the new motorway, so that thousands of cars pass by it on their way to work and on their way home. It’s as close to a slum as you could get in this country, the kind of place that makes you think, Who would live there? Who could? You wouldn’t send someone there to rot, and yet the fact it remains says something of our apathy. Housing New Zealand owns the 58 units on the 21,000 square metre site. It’s called the Jebson Block.
I wrote about the neighbourhood and the people who lived there in 2014. About Josephine Anderson who had requested a house anywhere but the Jebson Block out of fear that her kids would grow up around gangs, but was placed there anyway; her son was in jail when I spoke to her, the holes punched in the walls from the worst days reminding her of the sadness. About Lana Radcliffe, who had a smile on her face that made no sense and a toy cat sitting in the window ledge; she said she was “very lonely, very lonely indeed” as she remained in her unit while those who surrounded her moved off. About Mike Surch, who collected junk and piled it up on top of junk, a jolly character who knew everyone in the neighbourhood and had the endearing nickname Old Man Mike.
And Sharon Karauna, who had to sit down halfway up the steps to the bathroom in order to catch her breath, even though she was only 48. Since those visits, I can’t drive past the Jebson Block without thinking of Sharon Karauna and the sad sound of her wheezing, the way she looked standing there in her dressing gown that day.
Early in 2014, Housing New Zealand had told tenants of the Jebson Block that the houses they occupied were going to be demolished and each of them relocated by the year’s end. It’s been over two years and no decisions have been made regarding the future of the place. The land is available for housing that is fit for purpose and all that is lacking is the governmental will to do it.
For years the level of graffiti has been so bad it looks like people must tag there as a permanent job. Since 2015, HNZ has paid a security firm over $2500 a month to keep an eye on the area after concerns were raised about the level of graffiti and rubbish. In May, a letter was sent out to the few remaining residents to say three buildings in the area would be demolished: “The buildings are old and no longer fit for purpose,” it said, “and it would be uneconomic to repurpose and reconfigure them to bring them into line with the current standards.” It said the houses would be removed and the plots of land turned to grass “until decisions are made on the possible future use of the land”.
The buildings are almost all empty, now. In between the boarded up windows, sometimes a light can be seen inside a few of the houses at night. It’s as if everything about the place is dead, but it still limps on. I knocked on Old Man Mike’s door last week, but I knew it was empty before I got there because the clutter was gone from his carport. The toy cat still looks out from Lana Radcliffe’s window but the curtains are closed and no one answers the door. Down one side street, toddlers were running out onto the deserted road. Their aunty was watching from the fence and she looked around her and said “it’s all contaminated.” It felt like that.
One of the few remaining tenants says that at night he often sees cars parked down the abandoned driveways, people sleeping inside them. Some Hamilton-based agencies say there has been an increase in rough sleepers who have come down from Auckland. Some say they are coming from all over, some say they have been here all along. One week last month, five cases of people sleeping in their cars had come to the attention of Hamilton’s St Vincent de Paul general manager Mike Rolton. “They come to see us for blankets, warm clothes, food,” he said. One was a 21 year old woman, found with her nine month old baby after she had parked on a suburban street and a homeowner followed the sound of a crying child. I wanted desperately to talk to her, but when Rolton asked she said she felt too ashamed.
In the Waikato, there are around 190 people on the social housing register, and there are many more who don’t put their names in the mix, but are in serious need of housing. In 2014, the People’s Project was set up in Hamilton as a response to the growing concern that the city was rife with people who had dire housing needs. Because even the squalor of Jebson is preferable to the makeshift conditions that some are forced to live in instead
“The Jebson Block is an important part of the supply chain,” says chief executive Julie Nelson, “and the fact that it is sitting there empty is not helpful in the current market. Imagine how many people we could transition overnight if that housing were available.” Nelson says the vast majority of clients helped by the People’s Project (211 have been housed since it started in 2014 with a 93 per cent retention rate) are housed in the private sector.
Why are they not placed in social housing? “What people are saying is that their housing need is now,” she says. Even then, private housing is difficult to come by. One general manager of a private rental company who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, said “the unfortunate thing is that the greater the need that the tenant has, the less likely they are to get private accommodation. Unless you’ve got a real social conscience, if you had to choose between eight people living in a car and a family with jobs going for the same house, you are more likely to put the people with a job into it. That’s the harsh reality.”
When I met Carina Renata, she was sitting in an office at Whanau Ora centre Te Kohao Health. We could see the Jebson Block from the window on the top floor. Imagine if houses had been built so that you could move in there, I say. But she’s done with imagining. She looks out the window and she doesn’t say anything at all.
Carina Renata is a small woman who is 43 years old. She has five kids. She dresses tidily in a cheap black suit and she speaks only after having thought hard about it first. The need for her to find a place to live affects her so much that the pain looks physical. Her support person says she is a strong, proud woman, and indeed, the tears only fall down her face once the whole time I talk to her. Renata and her five kids have been on the Housing New Zealand waitlist for six months. Four months ago she was notified that she was being fast tracked, but she’s still waiting.
When the private rental she had been living in was sold, she found it difficult to secure a place she could afford that was big enough for her family (she gets $600 a week on the benefit). She has a bad credit rating thanks to $300 owing on an ancient power bill and that was another deterrent. So she applied for social housing. She has been to Work and Income at her most desperate, with nowhere for her and her kids to sleep that night. “They offered me a motel to stay in for three nights and that was OK, I took that, but the situation was still there when the three days were over.”
Renata is studying hospitality management and four of her children are at school in the Waikato, where they have lived for the last five years. As she waits for a house to become available, there have been nights where she has slept in her 2002 Honda van with the three youngest children, aged 10, 12 and 14. “We slept on a mattress in the back,” she says. She is not the complaining type. It wasn’t cold, they had food, access to the Laundromat, just nowhere to live. Right now, her three eldest children are staying with friends. “We have never been apart, it’s so stressful,” she says. A relative has agreed to house her and the two youngest, but only temporarily. “Where to next?” she asks, and the tears fall from her eyes.
The second time she visited WINZ about emergency housing, Renata was given a list of Hamilton motels to call. The rugby was in town that weekend. She would have to pay back over $1000 if she stayed in any accommodation for those three nights. Saphire Tairakena, a Whanau Ora navigator for Te Kohao Health had come on board as an advocate and she sat with Renata that day in the WINZ office.
“It was the first time I had been to an appointment where a WINZ worker offered an $80 petrol voucher,” Tairakena says. “They were saying, Go back to your family [in Paeroa], even though Carina had told them that place was already overcrowded. They said that was the last option they could give her because she was not willing to incur another $1000 in debt.” For three nights the family slept on mattresses on the floor at Kirikiriroa Marae, and managing director of Te Kohao Health Tureiti Moxon says that hundreds have taken shelter in that same spot over the past three years.
“What needs to be remembered,” says Moxon, “is that sleeping in a car, at the Marae, at a relatives, all these experiences have an impact on those little ones. It seems that society is saying it’s okay, and we need to be saying very loudly that it isn’t.”
Mike Rolton says he sees a case like this one every day. He’s seen it all. He says there has been an increase in poverty this year, but since he started at St Vinnies six years ago, things have been getting progressively worse.
It’s hard, he says, to quantify the number of people sleeping rough, in sheds, in overcrowded houses. The Ministry of Social Development would not break down numbers from region to region, but said 80 applicants on the social housing register have indicated they are living in cars. To give an idea of the growing need within this city, he quotes some figures. In 2012, St Vinnies Hamilton made around 230 lunches every week for schools that had identified hungry children. They now make 1800 a week. In 2012, they drove around poor neighbourhoods in a van and fed around 50 people each weeknight, now they feed over 100. In 2012, they furnished 75 homes and this year, they furnished 320.
David Martini approached St Vinnies and the charity sent him away with food and the promise it will gather items to furnish the family’s new rental. He and his partner and their seven kids, the youngest, 4, the oldest, 15, have just moved into a five bedroom place. They own one double bed, one mattress, one couch, four sheets, five towels, one week’s worth of clothing each.
The family moved to Hamilton from Wellington three months ago, David hoping to find work as a builder, hoping to find a home to live first, and it took all this time. While they looked, they shifted into a shed at a relative’s house in Melville. In the shed, they had one double bed, one mattress and a couch. “All my little ones were on the bed,” says David, “the older kids were on the mattress, and me and my partner were on the couch.”
Inside, his relatives had another family staying and the house was overcrowded. When it got too cold and too hard, David and his family moved into motels for a week here and there, racking up the debt with WINZ which he estimates to be around $15,000.
“Things were really spiralling down,” he says. The kids got sick and scabs appeared all over their bodies, they cried a lot and David started smoking drugs again. He started noticing people stare at him and his family and he wondered if it was because they are brown, or because the kids have sores all over their arms and legs. He enrolled them at the free medical centre and the scabs are being treated but will not relent.
“I felt like being violent towards people sometimes,” he says. “I was in the state of mind where people would look at me and I would think ‘What are you looking at, we are just like you. Don’t look at my kids like they are scum, they are just like you.’”
Twice a week St Vinnies runs a lunch for people who need it, and it’s usually full. About 10 hands go up when the question is asked: how many of you know someone living in a car. A man yells out: “Is it true that they are paying people $5000 to move down here? Can I move to Auckland and then move back down?” The room erupts into sad laughter.
It’s not exactly true.
In May, the Ministry of Social Development announced plans to lure people out of the big smoke with $5000 to cover relocation costs. Says MSD’s housing general manager Jeremy Wilson, “We must believe the move will be sustainable … no one will be queue jumped, no local person will be displaced. We don’t support financing someone to move unless they have got a house signed up and they have access to the services they need.” The Ministry has forecasted 100-150 families will access the grant in the coming year, and after that says Wilson, “we are looking to move as many people who are willing to move.”
They always move back, says Peter Humphries, manager of Hamilton Christian Night Shelter. “They go back to the environment they are used to,” he says, “and it might compound the problem then, because they may have lost the garage or wherever they were staying. Someone else may have moved in there while they were gone.” He says the issue of homelessness in Hamilton is “steady as she goes,” but he gets a lot of calls from families, “and I have to tell them that we don’t have a service for them. There is a lack of family accommodation [in Hamilton].”
He says it’s hard to pin down the numbers of rough sleepers, of people sleeping in cars, “If, say, you are in overcrowded accommodation and someone comes around on Census night, you are not going to say you live there.”
I call Women’s Refuge to ask if they have had an increase in demand. “What we have noticed,” says manager Ariana Simpson, “is the number of cases we are having pushed down from Auckland towards us. There is definitely an increase in the number of people who are ringing our service and are living in their cars. We are a refuge from domestic violence, but these women have children. We have looked at the situation and said, ‘Oh my god, we are not going to turn our backs on women living in their cars with kids.’”
Theresa and Billy-Ray Moana have recently found housing thanks to the People’s Project, but before that they were living in their Mazda Demio. Most nights they would park outside the rugby clubrooms on the outskirts of the city. They would shower at the public pools. Billy-Ray would push the seat as far back as it would go in the car, and rest his feet on top of the brake. His wife Theresa would curl up on the passenger seat. “It was cramped,” she says, “it was cold, it was freezing at times.” She was scared at night when people walked past the window.
On the day I met them, they had walked across town to St Vinnies to get food, because their money had run out. They said they have $100 left between them at the end of the week after paying $250 rent for a studio apartment, including power. They don’t seem to mind this state of being at zero dollars most weeks after rent has gone out and the bills paid, after one measly grocery shop. All that matters is they have somewhere to live.
Read more of The Spinoff’s coverage of the homelessness crisis in Madeleine Chapman’s ‘A Week at Te Puea’