Opinion: Surely NZ is better than this

"To witness young children living in a car for two months was bloody shocking."
"To witness young children living in a car for two months was bloody shocking."

This is the first time I have been moved to write about the experiences I have had putting a story together.  As part of an investigation for The Nation we spent three weeks in South Auckland meeting with families pushed out of the rental market. In political and media discussions about the housing crisis it struck me that the only victims we spoke about were first home buyers. Fair enough, but what about the almost 500,000 households in New Zealand that rent? What has been the impact on them and in particular those working families on low incomes? Many in this group will sadly never own a home and now can't even afford to rent one.  Without fail everyone we spoke to that operate in this area -- community leaders, emergency housing providers and social workers describe what is going on with the same word. Crisis. 

Those most affected, the low income families, agreed with that characterisation but couldn't dwell on it. As they told me, you just have to get on with life. What else can you do? The Kiwis we met were good, hard-working people forced to live in overcrowded houses, garages and, yes, cars. To witness young children aged under five living in a car for two months was bloody shocking.  We were told the family had tried to seek assistance from Work and Income and other agencies, but were told they would have to wait for eighteen months for a state house.  If that was depressing, what was amazing to see was the care shown to this family by the rest of the unlucky souls who made up their car community.  To meet these people was to shatter any preconceived ideas we had about the type of people they were. Many were working full time, some had university degrees, some were Maori, some were Pasifika, some were European. If these were the people society forgot, they didn't forget each other. They cooked together, kept the surrounding park tidy and even cleaned the local toilets each morning. The local cleaning lady can't speak highly enough about them.  For some New Zealanders, as it was for me, knowing people and families are sleeping in cars is a confronting reality. However if you speak with the social agencies and community leaders who strive every day to unravel the strands of this social disaster, they'll tell you it's a common problem they have known about for some time. In the last 12-18 months it has become worse, with rents soaring beyond the means of low income families.  Driving the streets of South Auckland you will also see many garage windows with curtains, tents and lean-tos in backyards and what look like hastily constructed bedrooms made from whatever wood there is to be found. I doubt they have resource consent but I am not sure they can afford to pay someone for written permission to simply put a roof over their head.     Now, to be fair, when people think of using garages for shelter, they imagine an uninsulated, drafty steel shell. While that describes many of the garage rentals to be found, it is also true to say that many of the garages have been insulated and extended families choose to live there for cultural reasons. However when you learn a family with two young kids has been living in a garage for two years and paying $380 a week for the privilege, you know something is seriously wrong with the system.  There were many similar stories we could have told you about. Like the Mum with three school age children and a 22-year-old son with cerebral palsy who have been living in a motel for three months.  When I met the mum her disabled son had been hospitalised with bed sores and spine damage, aggravated by the cramped conditions they lived in. This mum was absolutely beside herself with grief, having to deal with this day-to-day heartache. It's a burden she carries alone -- several years ago her husband was murdered in front of her.  It's about now that a reader or listener wading through this quagmire of a stranger's hurt wants to stop. Thankfully for the many of us for whom it is too much, there are platoons of social workers putting in countless hours to make these people's live a bit better. They are a workforce who has my utmost admiration. These same people were able to eventually find housing for the family we found living in a car. A meaningful victory the otherwise long war on poverty.   I also have no doubt there are plenty of good people working at the Ministry of Social Development, Work and Income and Child Youth and Family doing what they can as well. It can be very easy to knock them, but thousands of their staff do unseen good work.   This rental crisis is a complicated problem that will require a complicated answer. But the simple reality is we need answers now.  I hope the politicians see what we have seen, actually visit these people and see where they live. It is a strife you can't experience by reading a report.  The New Zealand these children have is a banged-up sedan. That's not the New Zealand they deserve.


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