'I feel terrified': 18-year-old's emotional plea for Govt to step up for homeless rangatahi

An 18-year-old, so terrified in emergency housing she pushes furniture against the doors, is calling on the Government to step up urgently with a strategy for homeless rangatahi.

Hannah learned to fend for herself from an early age. Her father died while she was a preschooler and then later, her mother walked out. That unstable childhood turned to life on the streets as a young teen. For her safety, Newshub Nation has kept her identity anonymous.

"It was really tough out there, me being a female. I had to go and steal for my stuff, and then I would get caught, and then I would go to the cells... No rangatahi should be out there," she told Newshub Nation. 

The charity Lifewise has supported her since she was a young teenager. She waited years for a vacancy in their accommodation, then lived there for a year. She's now 18 and has moved into Government emergency housing. Alone in her motel unit, she's scared of the other residents.

"If you want my honest opinion about where I am now, it sucks… I feel terrified. Not because I'm alone but because my room has been broken into so many times. 

"I have to start putting my table and chairs by my sliding door and my main door. I will only do that when I have my younger siblings there because I fear for their safety because there are drug users there and some of them are on methamphetamine." 

NGOs like Lifewise help support all young people struggling with housing. But it just doesn't have enough rooms for all the homeless young people seeking help.

"It's regular that we'll have a group of 20 young people that we're triaging for one room and we've got to decide who we can actually support," Lifewise youth team leader Aaron Hendy told Newshub Nation. 

"We had to tell these young 16-year-old vulnerable young women, 'Sorry, I don't know if we'll be able to find some place. We may be sending you back onto the street tonight.'" 

Under-18s who can't live at home can really struggle to get tenancies - emergency motels and private landlords often won't take them.

And while Oranga Tamariki provides support for 15- to 25-year-olds who have come out of their care, it's not enough, and there's a gap for those who haven't been institutionalised. And if the Government can't spare an emergency motel room, the young person may have to go back on the streets. 

Hannah had to fight to learn basic life skills the rest of us can take for granted.
Hannah had to fight to learn basic life skills the rest of us can take for granted. Photo credit: Newshub Nation.

The number of people in dire need of state housing has increased nearly 10-fold in the past two years but the forgotten group are teenagers and young adults. 

They've never rented a room before, and have missed out on learning life skills like cooking and how a tenancy works. The last count put New Zealand's homeless at 41,000. It's estimated half of them are under 25. 

And as the housing crisis deepens, more and more youth are becoming housing insecure, and end up living in government emergency housing instead of facilities with support. 

"The hopelessness of it.. we feel it," says Hendry.  

In the quarter to March 2020 there were 1287 under-25s living in emergency housing. That climbed to 1899 in December. Around half those young people are Māori .

Lifewise senior youth development Nicole Williams says the experience of emergency housing is "intimidating" for rangatahi.

"If they're not connected to any gang and often they leave and then they are then connected to a gang. If they haven't come into emergency housing with an addiction, they often leave with one. We've had a lot of our tamariki who get exposed to sexual trauma in these spaces, especially being young and alone and vulnerable." 

It's so frightening that many now choose homelessness over a Government emergency motel room.

"We have young people that constantly tell us, 'I feel safer living on the street than I do in a motel room because I feel cornered there,'" said Hendry. 

While there is a long road ahead for many struggling rangatahi, Hannah has come a long way. Looking back, she can't even recognise who she was three years ago. With help from Lifewise she's learnt to cook, clean and shop for food.

And she's learned to manage her income. For our shoot, she saved up $40 for a set of acrylic nails. 

"I know my dad would be really, really proud. These nails were damn expensive… I saved. I save. Wow. I'm actually really proud to say I save." 

But while she's getting her life sorted, there's still a gap where a home should be.

"I want to go back to living my old life where I didn't have to fear." 

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