Mother who went public with homelessness struggle says public abuse contributed to miscarriage

A woman who went public with her struggle to find a home for her family says she suffered a miscarraige after being constantly harassed by uncaring members of the public, accusing her of wanting a handout. 

Susan Mackay, her partner and their four kids ended up homeless after being kicked out of their previous rental following a dispute with their landlord. They were turned down for new places more than 30 times, and ended up in emergency accommodation.

When she appeared on The AM Show at the end of July, the six of them were sharing a single motel room - the kids sharing a single bed, with nowhere to play outside. Her family was banned from using facilities at the motel, like the pool and gym.

There weren't even enough chairs for them all to sit at the kitchen table as a family, and even the balcony was off-limits for the kids, with people in the rooms above throwing down cigarette butts

"They were fighting, they were hating each other," Mackay told The AM Show on Tuesday, coming back on the show to update viewers on progress since then. "These kids grew up loving each other. We've been through a lot in our lives and they're thick as thieves - that nearly broke them. As their mum, so heartbreaking."

'I just don't particularly want to hear your opinion' 

At the time, she was pregnant with a fifth. But the stress of being homeless was too much - not to mention the stigma. 

It started on social media, after her July appearance on the show.,

"Facebook I ignored because I knew there was a big backlash. Whoop-de-doo, you've all got opinions. That's fine, I just don't particularly want to hear your opinion right now."

But it soon spilled over into real-life.

"I was going into Takapuna just about every day, and certain people would come up to me out of the middle of nowhere and [say], 'You're that person - you just want a handout.' I'm standing there with my daughter. 'No, I don't want a handout.' 

"I pay my way. I'd love to be able to get a house and make it our home again."

Susan Mackay.
Susan Mackay. Photo credit: The AM Show

She blames the stress and abuse for her miscarriage, which has blighted an otherwise good few months for the family. 

"It felt like we were just another number on the books... We spent a few more months in the motel. They moved us into a two-bedroom unit so we had conjoined rooms, which gave the boys two beds - which was great. It was amazing. After coming on the show the support from the motel and everything just changed.

Officials look into the case

In early August, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show she'd get officials to look into Mackay's case. 

"We try and move families out of those situations as quickly as we can. It's not good for kids." 

Work and Income, which had previously refused to help the family because of dad's $65,000 salary, changed its tune once then-Associate Minister of Housing Kris Faafoi got involved. 

"We'd asked and asked but [we got nowhere] until we contacted you guys and you guys gave us that opportunity to show what we were facing. There's so many families - we're not the only one." 

They're now living in a four-bedroom place provided by social housing provider De Paul House - and the change has done wonders for the children. 

"Being in a house, they get to go outside, they're running around, they're playing, they're happy. For my partner and myself, it gave us that bit of space... It's so amazing having an oven, to be able to cook a proper meal. Just being able to say to them 'go to bed' and have them actually go to bed and sleep, or read a book."

Normally housing like this is only available for 14 weeks, but they've been allowed extra time due to the added difficulties COVID-19 has presented this year.  

'What we're looking for is an opportunity'

Mackay says despite being able to afford a place of their own, landlords and public service officials can't see past her background of drug use. A former meth user, Mackay says she's been clean seven years now - realising soon after having her first two children - now aged nine and seven - it was either them or the drugs.

"You very much get stereotyped very quickly - it's almost like you get put to the bottom of the list and forgotten about. It's scary when you've got so many children and you're just trying to bring them up the right way and show them what society should be like."

She also blames her policy of being upfront about her past. 

"I learnt that lies get you nowhere. They'll find you out... I learnt to own up. It's the actions you take after the mistakes. I'm not looking for handouts - neither are a lot of the families in this situation. What we're looking for is an opportunity to prove ourselves." 

Though she's grateful for the assistance the "amazing people" at De Paul House have delivered, it's still not a substitute for a real house, rented or owned.

Even at De Paul House, we live fortnight by fortnight. We have inspections fortnightly, we're not allowed alcohol on the premises, we've got a whole pile of rules - which is absolutely fine, but you know... you still feel like you're' watching yourself. It doesn't feel like you're in your own home, as much as I love it." 

Last week the waiting list for social housing hit a new high, with nearly 22,000 applicants. At the same time, the percentage of people who own their home has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 70 years according to new figures from Statistics NZ