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There is so much family and gang-related violence here that the group kitchen often becomes a dangerous area. (Image: Tina Tiller)
There is so much family and gang-related violence here that the group kitchen often becomes a dangerous area. (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyApril 22, 2024

There’s no need to make emergency housing harder. It’s hard enough already

There is so much family and gang-related violence here that the group kitchen often becomes a dangerous area. (Image: Tina Tiller)
There is so much family and gang-related violence here that the group kitchen often becomes a dangerous area. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Trust me, I know: I’ve been living in a damp, violent hotel in central Auckland for six months and counting.

I get it, Minister. I really do. You want us out of emergency housing. And believe me, so do we. I have been living in emergency accommodation in a hotel in central Auckland for six months and counting. That’s despite the fact that, as a disabled person with children who recently fled violence, my need for social housing is classified by MSD as the highest priority possible. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, though: a grandmother I met recently has been waiting in a motel with her mokopuna with special needs at the top of the so-called priority waitlist for eighteen months. Believe me, we’re more fed up with it than you.

You really don’t need to make it harder for us, Minister, with your new verification processes and eligibility checks. It’s not easy to get into emergency housing. Take my case: despite the fact that a social worker at my local MSD office agreed that the danger in my home was too high for me to remain, and paid for my kids and I to move, when it came to emergency housing, a different employee from MSD’s national team decided I did not meet the criteria. I spent three nights in a hospital where medics didn’t want to discharge me because there was nowhere for me to go, and then another night failing to sleep on a hard chair in the emergency department because the hospital was full and that was the best they could provide.  

After I was finally discharged from hospital, I moved to one of those “unofficial” former backpacker lodges for the homeless like the one that burnt down in Parnell this month. We slept eight in a basement room with no fire exit. Only when my legs gave out completely and I couldn’t climb the stairs at the lodge did MSD relent and put me in a hotel. 

That was OK for a while, until I made the mistake of being visibly Jewish.  I lit candles in the window of my room for Chanukah, and the next day there was a swastika painted on the door. It took three weeks for MSD to accept that this was unacceptable and move me again.

An artwork by the author.

I’m careful to make sure no one knows my ethnicity in the hotel I’m living in now, but it’s still not easy. There is constantly so much family and gang-related violence here that the group kitchen, for example, often becomes a dangerous area. This isn’t just inconvenient, it’s potentially life-threatening: I almost lapsed into a diabetic coma this week when my blood sugar fell to a dangerous level. This was due entirely to being unable to cook for myself in the group kitchen (due to the violence) and having to rely on the motel’s irregular deliveries of evening fast-food meals. 

Oh, and there was also the month I spent in a damp basement room with increasingly failing lungs, begging the hotel to move me. Fortunately, my children aren’t exposed to this: their father and I have agreed it’s better for them to stay with him for now, and to see me for daytime visits. But this deprives us of a normal family life. It’s not a cushy option, Minister. We’re not here because we have any choice.

Laying more obligations on people seeking emergency housing and forcing our MSD managers to check on us more frequently won’t help the problem. If there’s one bright light in the system at the moment, it’s the pastoral care offered by the MSD integrated housing managers. I’ve had two, and both have made it clear that they really, really care. They’re already doing a lot; checking on my application with Kainga Ora and fielding calls from support agencies. At a time when the public sector is facing huge cuts, why double their workload by forcing them to check on me every four days?

Besides, what precisely are they supposed to encourage us to do? Move into a tent? I’ve already done your Ready to Rent programme; the government-funded, semi-compulsory course for those of us on the social housing waiting list. On the course, I was made to sing the “If you’re happy and you know it” song and heard the suggestion that homelessness is the result of financial irresponsibility and that a budgeting course would make us irresistible to the private sector. Trouble is, even when I’d proved I could provide references and read an electricity bill, not a single rental agency – even the one that ran the course – was prepared to return my calls. Perhaps they knew, as I did, that there was zero chance of getting a private landlord to make disabled home adaptations, like installing a ramp or bathtub. 

The only post-Ready to Rent support I’ve received is a text offering me another MSD course, this one on the thrilling topic of how to send an email. Like most disabled people, I have no option but to wait in the social housing queue – a queue that is longer for us than anyone else.

All this is leading to increasing difficulties with a local charity that cares for pets of people fleeing violence and abuse. Initially this was a wonderful service, but for those of us with complex housing needs it’s only a short-term fix. When I initially explained that it might take me longer to be safely housed than most of their clients, two separate staff members told me not to worry about our pets. Sadly, this early experience of friendly support has morphed into increasingly terse threats of a deadline and demands I produce a plan B. This has devastated my children, who trusted the word of a prominent charity when told not to worry about the fate of their pets.  

Honestly, Minister, the solution doesn’t lie in making emergency housing harder. It lies in that awkward, expensive, unglamorous idea of more affordable homes.

Keep going!