Pedestrians walk past a person rough sleeping on High Street in central Auckland in October 2020 (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past a person rough sleeping on High Street in central Auckland in October 2020 (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images

OPINIONSocietyApril 29, 2021

Youth homelessness is a crisis – stop the finger-pointing and fix it  

Pedestrians walk past a person rough sleeping on High Street in central Auckland in October 2020 (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past a person rough sleeping on High Street in central Auckland in October 2020 (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images

Our young people experiencing homelessness don’t care about whose fault it is – they care about what those in power now are going to do about, writes youth development worker Aaron Hendry.

Over the past week or so, there’s been increased attention on how much motel owners are charging to house our homeless whānau, as well as the conditions they’re being forced to live in.

Some well-timed articles by RNZ reporter Jane Patterson, combined with National’s housing spokesperson Nicola Willis getting a bit vocal, drove the conversation to the forefront last week.

It was highlighted again that the environments in some of these motels are unsafe and unfit, with reports of violence and abuse. Some of our youngest and most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness are saying that in some cases, they felt safer on the street than in the motels.

The main response from the government has been to say that it’s better than the streets. Nicola Willis has argued we can do better.

She’s right – the options aren’t the street, or an unsafe motel, and yet, the response to this critique from many Labour Party supporters has genuinely surprised me.

There has been significant pushback from supporters of the government, with some arguing that National created the housing crisis, and others parroting the now well-worn “nine years of neglect” rallying cry that has become the go-to in the face of any criticism.

But to say we can do better shouldn’t be controversial; we were saying this back when John Key was leading the government. The conditions people are living in were unacceptable when National was in power. They are no more acceptable under Labour.

Distracting from the issue by trying to attribute fault to one side or the other, or this “it’s better than the street” mentality – as if people experiencing homelessness should just be grateful and should not expect to live with dignity – is the height of privilege. 

To be honest, our people, the ones experiencing homelessness, don’t care about the last nine years. They don’t care about who should hold ultimate responsibility for the complex set of factors that led to the housing crisis. What they care about is what those in power are going to do now. What they care about is being safe, being warm, being dry. Fighting over who should hold the blame distracts from what really matters. Getting justice for our people. 

Right now there is no safe, secure and supported immediate accommodation for a rangatahi who is in urgent need of housing. This means that if they’re unsafe, if they’re at risk of homelessness, their options are either to remain in the situation in which they are endangered, attempt to gain emergency accommodation (in accommodation that is often unfit for rangatahi), or couch surf among friends and acquaintances (which can make them equally vulnerable, as they’re often exposed to further risk of abuse and exploitation). If those options are not available or have been exhausted, they may end up sleeping rough on our streets, in our parks, or in a car if they can find it.

If you’re 16 or 17, your choices are limited further as many moteliers funded by the government for emergency accommodation will not take a rangatahi of that age. This can lead to a situation like we had during level four lockdown last year, where our youngest rough-sleeping rangatahi were turned away from emergency housing while the nation rolled out the stops to house our adult whānau.

Lifewise, alongside Manaaki Rangatahi, a collective working to end youth homelessness, has been calling on the government since the level four lockdown last year to provide an immediate accommodation solution for rangatahi experiencing homelessness, with services and 24/7 support on site. This would give them the support they need to access long-term housing as swiftly as possible. It would also, in the long run, be significantly cheaper than the reported $1 million a day being spent on emergency housing currently.

Yet, despite numerous calls to action, conversations across the relevant ministries and collective agreement at both government and community level that a solution is needed and that motels are failing our people, we are yet to see any sign of decisive action – and our rangatahi continue to experience oppression at the hands of this system.

This is a crisis. 

Young people, teenagers, kids are being traumatised, abused, neglected and significantly harmed due to our national failure to respond adequately to this housing crisis. It is one thing to talk about the stress and strain the housing crisis is having on first home buyers or property investors, but we need to recognise that more important than whether you’ll be able to own your first home is the question of whether you have the right to live in one at all. 

The persistence of youth homelessness, and the lack of decisive action in addressing it, is demonstrating that the right to housing is not being upheld within Aotearoa. In a country lauded internationally for our values of kindness, justice and progress, we allow children to grow up in motels, young people to live on our streets, and we deny our rangatahi their right to safe, stable, secure accommodation, choosing to ignore their cries for justice rather than make the tough decisions needed to keep them safe. 

We have failed. We have accepted homelessness as a social class within our society. As a fixture of our broken and dysfunctional communities.

And yet, homelessness does not need to exist. We can end it, but not if we get distracted by pointing fingers at each other. Tribalism is not going to bring us equality. Protecting your party from a valid critique, just because it comes from the “other side”, does nothing to advance justice.

Having sat down kanohi ki te kanohi with several ministers within the government charged with taking on this issue, I know that no one thinks this is OK. We are blessed to have leaders in our government who genuinely care for our people. 

But despite all the best intentions, something within the system is blocking progress. And when the system blocks progress, and people are harmed as a result, then sometimes the problem needs to be named so we can fix it. 

If we want this government to make the transformational progress they promised us, we cannot shy away from giving productive and worthy critiques, regardless of how uncomfortable or challenging they may be.

At the end of the day, it does not matter who is in government. The goal is not a Labour or National government, the goal is liberation, the goal is equality, the goal is enhanced wellbeing for our people, communities, and whenua. The goal is justice.

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