COVID-19: Salvation Army calls for rent freezes, Govt aid as demand for food and housing support skyrockets

The Salvation Army is calling on the Government to impose a freeze on rent increases, among other measures, to help those most in need as demand for food and housing support skyrockets

Since lockdown began at 11:59pm on August 17, there has been an 84 percent increase in demand for emergency food parcels, with the rising need concentrated most heavily in south Auckland, says the Army. More than 2200 parcels were distributed across the country last week, almost double the number requested the week prior, with marked increases in need evident across all major centres.

The proposal to freeze rent increases is one of several outlined in the Salvation Army's new COVID-19 Lockdown Briefing. Released on Thursday, the briefing suggests a number of practical measures to help ease the burden of lockdown for families in hardship. Since the first lockdown was introduced in March 2020, the number of people waiting for social housing has increased by 8200, and the number of those receiving welfare support has risen by around 45,000.

The briefing illustrates the plight of Kiwis struggling with the stresses of lockdown, including those living in crowded or substandard housing in the private rental market, casual contractors currently unable to work, and sole parent families. There is also a cohort with health or mobility challenges who are struggling to access the essential items they need, as well as those with limited access to the internet or digital devices who are unable to shop online.

"You've got that double combination of lack of income and lack of access to food," the Salvation Army's senior social policy analyst, Paul Barber, told The AM Show on Thursday morning.

"You've got people in crowded, substandard housing who have expanded their bubble and need further food. Casual contract workers' incomes have stopped and wage subsidy processes might not be clear to people. [There are] sole parents with young children who can't get to the shops because they can't take the children… and those with limited access to the internet, we're seeing that digital divide being deepened. People can't access online shopping or other ways of getting support online.

"People are operating often on very tight budgets, they don't have a lot in reserve. The lockdown came quickly, and you're quickly put in a position where you really need help."

The Salvation Army says the distribution of food parcels is often a good indicator of hardship, with the heightened demand for support suggesting there are critical issues regarding food insecurity. Many families rely on the Ministry of Education's Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme, which provides healthy lunches for school children. But with schools currently closed amid alert level 3 and alert level 4 restrictions, these families are now struggling to afford enough food for their tamariki, says the Army. Prior to the additional burden of lockdown, around one in five children in New Zealand live in households that struggle to put enough good-quality food on the table.

The Army notes that while national and internal systems suggest there is not a food crisis yet, as there is still enough to meet the demand for support, this could change quickly.

This marked rise in food insecurity is also illustrated in the number of enquiries to the Army's 0800 helpline. A steady flow of people have been seeking help for addiction treatment support, housing assistance and financial mentoring help during lockdown. 

In the COVID-19 Lockdown Briefing, the Salvation Army is also calling on the Government to: 

  • Bring forward the implementation of the April 2022 benefit increases with immediate effect 
  • Implement immediate assistance to help families meet rents, such as through increased thresholds for housing special needs grants
  • Implement a freeze on rent increases, at least for Auckland for the duration of levels 3 and 4 and beyond. 
  • Ensure the Ministry of Education is connected and supporting families who usually receive their healthy school lunches programme. The funding has already been allocated to food support and should be used for these families
  • Ensure migrant workers have full entitlement to the Emergency Benefit with MSD, following the end of the Manaaki Manuhiri programme.

Read the Salvation Army's COVID-19 Lockdown Briefing here.