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The young and the homeless: New Zealand’s big human rights fail

A group of AUT students have banded together to make a documentary on our growing homelessness problem – and to argue that by failing to act, New Zealand could be in contravention of its international human rights obligations.

“I contemplated why I should even be alive right now, when I can’t even put a roof over my head,” says 23-year-old Ben, who lived rough in Auckland and Wellington’s streets for four years.

He’s one of the many homeless youth of Auckland who talk about their lives on the streets – huddling for body warmth, coming into the city for the security of the lights and the safety of being around a lot of people (even if it’s just strangers walking past) – in a new documentary by AUT Master of Human Rights students detailing the extent of the problem.

“For many of us the common stereotype of the homeless is a drunken man rummaging through bins and asking for change,” says student and filmmaker Phoebe Hetherington, who spoke to homeless youth and support providers for the film. “Through these interviews, the issue completely changed in our eyes and became much more of a reality.”

“Instead of it only coming to our attention when walking past a street person holding a sign on Queen Street, we came to understand the complexities of the situation. The causes of youth becoming homeless – family breakdown and conflict, discrimination against LGBT, poor mental health, substance abuse and addictions – are issues deeply rooted in our society.”

The resulting film, On Our Doorstep: A Voice for Homeless, frames the issue as a fundamental abuse of basic human rights.

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

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

Statistics New Zealand defines homelessness as situations where people have no option to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, shared accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing. Several of the human rights treaties to which New Zealand is a signatory define shelter and security as a basic right.

But while most of us think of our country as having a proud history of upholding human rights, around 41,000 Kiwis (at least one in every 100) are homeless; more than half of them are under the age of 25. That’s more than 20,000 young New Zealanders – and the trendlines suggest the situation is only getting worse.

“We have not acknowledged the problem. We’re falling behind most OECD countries – including 17 years behind Australia, which launched their National Strategy to End Homelessness back in 1999,” says Hetherington. “Meanwhile our own government’s Social Services Committee voted against a select committee hearing on homelessness earlier this year.”

Mental health issues are much more prevalent in the homeless population: levels of depression are ten times higher and the mortality rate is two to ten times higher. The students’ conclusion: homelessness clearly violates the ‘supreme’ right to life.

“When the home, the place that should be our sanctuary – one of peace, security and dignity – is not available to us, an adverse domino effect takes place,” says Hetherington. “Mental health is often decreased, contributing to substance abuse and violence. With the lack of security, personal safety and physical health is constantly threatened.

“These are fundamental rights that all human beings are entitled to, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status. The rights of the homeles must be respected and protected, just like everyone else.”

It’s easy to walk past and wonder why the homeless don’t just sign up for a benefit or government help. But as the documentary shows, that can be a near-impossible task, requiring an IRD number, address, passport or birth certificate – all of which people on the street typically don’t have or can’t easily access. Even if they do manage to get the benefit, it doesn’t cover the cost of accommodation – then there’s the issue of landlords unwilling to rent to young people without references or jobs. Racist attitudes can also come into play.

The students have set up a Facebook page and are calling on people to sign a petition which will be presented to parliament by Green MP Marama Davidson.

“We want this issue to gain importance in the public eye as one that needs action right now,” says Hetherington.

The AUT Master of Human Rights Class will host a screening of the documentary On Our Doorstep: A Voice for Homeless Youth at 6pm on Wednesday 18 January at Auckland University of Technology city campus. All welcome.


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