Opinion: Living in poverty like living in a war zone

Opinion: Living in poverty like living in a war zone
Photo credit: Getty.

By Jono Bell, Salvation Army national director of community ministries

We are so privileged as a first world country, yet some people are living like they are in a war zone and many of us are completely oblivious.

The day-to-day reality for some people is they ultimately don't have the level of income needed to survive, let alone thrive. It's not only that they don't have enough to entertain the kids over the holidays or go out for dinner, it's basic needs like simple food, power, transport, warmth and shelter. I see the reality, along with 300 of my colleagues, and countless people from other organisations fighting poverty every day and what we all know is that there is no quick fix.

Living in impoverished conditions is like living in a war zone. People living in poverty are often on high alert. For some, there is no time to consider where to find help and how to get out of a poor situation because energy is spent on basic survival.

When people first come to us, they are often traumatised by their conditions. It takes time to identify their stressors and work through them before we even get close to suggesting a fix.

Suggesting that people just need to "pull up your boot straps and go find a job" is not realistic and not helpful when people are overwhelmed with life issues. Housing insecurity, financial insecurity, social or relational insecurity all compound. It's multiplied when there are other factors like generational poverty, mental health issues and addiction.

For people in this state, to be able to look forward to something or have any kind of optimism, they need a certain level of safety before we can work with them. When they start to see the possibilities and hope for themselves, that's when transformational change happens. A day without poverty and a regular well-paying job is inconceivable for some people, let alone mapping out the steps required to work towards it.

We are now in the middle of our winter appeal, where we ask the public to support us with donations to get help to people who need it. We run these appeals because we need help immediately, but our work is far from a quick fix. 

People who come to us develop trust which allows us to go with them on a journey of change. This helps them get to a place where they can get back control.

I worked with a man in west Auckland who had been on the streets for over two years. He was incredibly shy and came to us for our shower and kitchen facilities. One time he cooked up some fish he had found in the bin - he wasn't even concerned about food poisoning, he was so hungry. 

We would start simple conversations about what it might be like for him to have his own place. He was estranged from his children, isolated from society and suffering mental health issues so a modest little flat was an unimaginable idea.

After a long time peeling back the layers and working through a number of steps we were able to help him into a place. He eventually felt comfortable to engage socially and he would volunteer at one of our centres. We discovered that he used to carve, so we asked him to help with a carving for our reception area. This led to him reconnecting with another organisation for carving and artwork and he started a training course working towards a qualification. This process took more than a year. It's not a quick, linear process and there are ups and downs along the way.

We need to take the time to give people a fighting chance.

Recently I was walking with a friend on a Newtown street and we came across a man I knew. He was sitting on the pavement as he did most days. I said "Hi Brad, how are you?" and my friend was surprised, saying she had been so scared of him and would avoid eye contact. She said next time she would say hello. 

This is where it begins. A simple acknowledgement of people doing it tough. Giving people a shot. Landlords taking a chance on the family that struggles to find a place. Employers giving the job to someone they wouldn't normally. 

From here, with a bit of understanding and a little bit of kindness we can start fighting the war on poverty and make a world of difference to people who need it.