Finding yourself homeless is terrible at any age – but it’s even worse for those under 18, who are routinely turned away by emergency housing providers, writes Aaron Hendry.
“Our response to Covid, on the face of it, had a very simple premise: stay home, save lives. That simple requirement forced all of us as a country to ask the question – what if you don’t have a home? The answer was simple: we will find you one.” – Jacinda Ardern, May 14, 2020
The prime minister’s words were ones of courage and conviction, but for the homeless girl sitting in my office they rang hollow.
She’d spent lockdown homeless. Sometimes she’d been forced to live on the street; at other times she’d found places to couch surf, or a bridge or abandoned building to sleep under.
But didn’t the government solve homelessness? What about all those motels they funded – why couldn’t she go there?
No, because emergency housing providers do not have to take people under 18 into their state-funded facilities. During lockdown, this meant that if you were under 18 and you needed somewhere to sleep there was no guarantee you would be able to find somewhere that would take you. Not because there wasn’t any emergency housing available, but simply because of your age.
And so while our older homeless people were supported into motels, and our families were housed and provided with support, our young people were left out in the cold. No provision was made for their needs, no support offered to address the crisis they were facing. They were abandoned to our streets, left to find shelter in dangerous and often abusive environments.
So why weren’t the needs of our rangatahi accounted for?
In Aotearoa, over half of our homeless population are rangatahi, yet we have no youth-specific strategy to respond to the complex and unique challenges they face.
When young people experience homelessness, they are more at risk of violence, sexual assault, and other forms of exploitation, due to their age and thus their unique vulnerability. But over the last several years the government’s focus has been on providing services and solutions for adults and families, while the needs of young people were ignored.
And so when Covid hit, they were left to fend for themselves. There was no thought given to the fact that some young people would be barred from emergency accommodation entirely. Or that young people who were just old enough to access emergency accommodation would be housed with little support, and in adult environments where they were put at risk of further abuse and exploitation.
Manaaki Rangatahi, the Auckland youth homelessness collective of which I’m a member, reported that during lockdown many young people were forced into dangerous living situations due to the lack of safe accommodation. Youth workers in the collective reported young people sleeping on the street, or couch surfing in homes where they experienced sexual abuse and physical violence. There were stories of young pregnant girls sleeping in cars, or others where rangatahi were forced to remain in toxic environments where they were the victims of mental and physical abuse. RainbowYOUTH, a steering group member of the collective, spoke about being overwhelmed with stories of young people navigating the toxic and sometimes dangerous situation of being quarantined with people who weren’t supportive of their sexuality or gender identity, their lack of options forcing them to stay in environments which were traumatising and often physically dangerous.
This was lockdown for our vulnerable rangatahi. But it didn’t have to be this way. Youth homelessness was not created by Covid-19 – these issues did not just pop up due to lockdown. Covid-19 simply highlighted their existence.
The government has known about this problem for longer than it might care to remember. In 2012, as part of the Welfare Reform Bill, it created the youth payment which offered financial support to young people who had become homeless. Though the payment was great, it wasn’t enough. No thought was given to where these young people would live, or how they would find safe accommodation. This despite the 2013 census revealing that over half our homeless population were young people. Three years later, the 2016 Auckland Homeless Count found that almost a third of those surveyed were under 18 – and even that was considered an undercount due the survey’s weakness in accounting for rangatahi.
Knowing all this, we’ve closed our eyes to the problem rather than facing it head on. Time and time again Jacinda Ardern has expressed a vision for our nation of kindness and compassion, but a nation that ignores the abuse and exploitation of its most vulnerable is not a kind nation. In fact, it is the opposite.
Youth homelessness can be ended, but we will need both the courage and compassion to do so. This is why Manaaki Rangatahi is calling on the government to act urgently to address this crisis. Until a strategy is put in place to address youth homelessness, young people will continue to be exploited and abused by a system that does not take their needs into account. If we are going to end homelessness in Aotearoa then we must start by ending youth homelessness.
To do this, we need to be strategic. We need to take seriously the impact that child poverty has on young people becoming homeless, we need to support whanau in the home so that young people aren’t uplifted, or forced to leave their homes because they are in toxic and dangerous environments. We need to create legislation that closes the pipelines into homelessness for young people, making it impossible for government agencies to exit young people from their services to the streets.
We need to wrestle with the reality that young Māori are massively over represented within the homeless population – 80-90% of young people in the homelessness service I lead identify as Māori – and take seriously what that means for our obligations under Te Tiriti.
But while we’re addressing these issues, we also need urgent and immediate access to safe, supported and stable emergency and transitional housing. We need housing right now, so that if a young person becomes homeless tonight, they don’t have to be victims of abuse, exploitation, and neglect because the only place available for them to go is our streets.
The young girl mentioned earlier ended up in our office quite by accident. She was walking the streets and one of our team managed to connect with her. She was on the streets because as a community we have failed her. I remember the hopeless feeling as my team and I rang motels, begging people to take her in. The dread as the clock clicked closer to 5pm, and we were no closer to finding her somewhere to stay. The all too common question of why? Why in a nation that so highly values kindness and compassion, do we have a young girl sitting in our office on a Friday afternoon and there is nowhere safe or stable that she can go?
That day we were lucky. At the eleventh hour we were able to find a compassionate motel owner who was willing to allow this young person into their emergency accommodation.
It shouldn’t be this way. Our young people should not have to sleep on the street, or remain in abusive and toxic environments, simply because they have nowhere else to go.
If Covid-19 taught us anything, it is that when we prioritise human health and wellbeing we can move mountains.
If we all agree that our young people shouldn’t be abandoned to live on our streets, then we can do something about that. We can do this. We can #EndYouthHomelessness, but we have to want it enough.