On a miserable wet mid-winter night at a car park in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga, Charlie sits in his car trying to stay warm and dry.
Dressed in a black hoodie, sporting an overgrown beard, a mop of salt and pepper hair and sunken cheeks, betraying a past of ill health, Charlie camps out for his sixth week in the only place that is keeping him off the street - his car.
“The reason for me being homeless was because I was living in an infested house,” explains Charlie.
Bitten by mites and fleas, Charlie’s health began to deteriorate to the point he had to stop working for two weeks. Two weeks turned into three months, and by then, on the orders of his doctor, he moved out of his home and into his car. “I couldn’t move I was that sick that I couldn’t move anywhere or go look for a place.”
Now in a public car park on a soggy June night, Charlie sits inside his car under the dim yellow light of a streetlight that illuminates his car. This car park has become a drive-in not only for Charlie but many others who have nowhere else to go.
With the number of Kiwis living on the streets, in their cars, or in overcrowded homes on the rise, and temporary accommodation and government housing failing to keep up with an ever-growing demand, New Zealand’s homeless situation is reaching a crisis point. “Not enough is being done. Even though the Government’s doing a lot, it’s not doing enough quickly enough to address or stem the tide,” says Salvation Army’s Social Policy Director Ian Hutson.
That’s around 41,000 people who are either without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation or living in uninhabitable housing.
No one seems to know the exact number of people without a home in New Zealand and that’s simply because there hasn’t been an official count of the homeless population. Estimates we currently have of the scale of New Zealand’s growing homeless problem have come from a study carried out by University of Otago, Wellington’s Dr Kate Amore in her paper Severe Housing Deprivation in New Zealand. “Before we did this we had no idea what the scale of homelessness was and if you need to address something you need to measure it and I think it has changed the conversation about homelessness,” Dr Amore says.
The data on homelessness collected every census has always been there but wasn’t tapped into until 2001 when the first study by Dr Amore was published. Together with information collected by charities working on the frontline with the homeless, a rough calculation has brought to light the scale of the problem we have across the country.
Politicians haven’t hidden the fact that New Zealand has a large homeless and housing crisis. Just last year, the Mayor of Auckland Phil Goff acknowledged the country’s biggest and wealthiest city is struggling with “extreme homelessness”. To try and combat the problem, a city-wide count was conducted last year to try and estimate the number of people who call the streets of Auckland their home.
This was the first time a large-scale count in one of the country’s largest cities had been carried out on a single night. Volunteers went out in groups of two or three to selected streets and areas across Auckland.
Based on the street count, it’s estimated there were approximately 800 people unsheltered across Auckland on September 17, 2018.
The next census data, which will be released in April, should reveal the current number of New Zealand’s homeless population. Dr Amore says it could exceed the estimated number of 41,000. “I hate to speculate, but since 2013 there are things that have happened that make us suspect that it’s worsened.”
Growth in population and the shortage of homes especially in Auckland may have largely contributed to this. This could also mean the number of dwellings that were estimated to be needed in the 2013 study of 15,000 to 26,000 would not be enough to house the entire homeless population in New Zealand. “We know from population growth and demand on housing overall that the gap in the number of new dwellings we need to house the population is at least that number in Auckland.” This is despite there being enough dwellings in New Zealand to house the total population. “It’s not a lack of housing per se, it’s just that it’s not equitably distributed with some people having multiple houses while some people have none.”
Dr Amore says both governments have worked hard to address the issue of homelessness but the number of the unhoused is “many times” higher than they are currently building for. “It’s a great start, but we know that the need every day is growing and growing.”
“Do you like having a shower in the morning? Do you like having a nice meal at night, making a cup of tea? Well, you can’t do that when you’re living on the street.” Clinton first became homeless when he was 13-years-old after his mother kicked him out of the house.
“My mother said if you don’t abide by these rules, get out.” For the next 30 years, Clinton would spiral into a world of drug and alcohol abuse which would see him sell his body to fuel his habit.
Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental health issues and even personal preference are listed as the reasons that many New Zealanders call the city streets their home. But addiction only makes up a small percentage of the homeless population. Those working or studying make up the majority of those who are struggling to afford to keep a roof over their head. “The kind of things people are experiencing right now is having to live in substandard houses, overcrowding because they can’t afford rent as an individual or a family unit,” says Mr Hutson.
"At the moment because landlords are spoilt for choice they will tend to choose certain types of people over others."
The lack of housing in New Zealand has fuelled the fire of the homeless crisis causing an endless flow of people knocking on the doors of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) who have reached capacity for housing the ever-growing need. MSD’s Deputy Chief Executive for Housing Scott Gallacher acknowledges that more housing needs to be built to address the current crisis here. “Our optimal outcome is to have far more supply of public housing, so people can have long-term stability. The stark reality is the context in which we find ourselves in that we just cannot bring on the degree of supply of long-term housing in the time required.
“The scale of what we’ve got of transitional housing at the moment will probably reduce over time. Once we have a far stronger supply of long-term homes for people that is really the optimal outcome that we’re all trying to achieve,” says Mr Gallacher.
Millions has been thrown at the homeless crisis in New Zealand. Back in May 2018, the Labour government promised $100 million towards fixing homelessness with $37 million going to emergency housing, $8 million of that being for motels.
Yet, charities and the MSD are struggling to curb the flow of people needing shelter.
In 2008 Finland made a significant change to its homeless policy, leading to it becoming the only country in Europe where the number of homeless people has declined. They achieved this by shutting down emergency shelters and temporary housing and instead began renovating these dwellings into apartments. This was on top of permanent social housing being built through the country under a Housing First programme.
It was not an overnight success, it was a model Finland had been working on since the 1980s with charities, NGOs and volunteers. But the launch of a fully funded national programme a decade ago saw the tide turn on homelessness.
“For us it means it’s always permanent housing that’s supposed to be proved for homeless persons – always permanent instead of temporary solutions,” Finland’s Housing First CEO Juha Kaakinen explains.
Mr Kaakinen says emergency shelters and hostels were failing to keep up with demand and were becoming an “obstacle” to solving homelessness. “Well it’s obvious that when you are on the street or you are living in temporary accommodation to take care of things like employment issues, health and social issues it’s almost impossible,” he says.
“But a permanent home gives you a safe place where you don’t have to be afraid about what’s going to happen tomorrow, and you know if you can take care of the rent.”
In 2008, Helsinki alone had 500 bed places in emergency shelters, now 10 years later there is only one shelter with 52 beds. Finland’s Housing First social housing, for those who are on low incomes or in need of urgent accommodation, makes up 13 per cent of their total housing stock.
Under their housing policy, every new development must be 20 per cent social housing.
It’s quite a simple thing in a way, it makes common sense that you have to have a home like everyone else.
Not only is permanent housing supplied to those who can’t afford a roof over their head but wrap around support such as financial and debt counselling is also provided. The number of homeless in Finland has dropped from 18,000 to 6500 people with 80 per cent living with friends and relatives while they wait for a home. This means there is practically no street or rough sleepers in the country, which has a total population of 5.4 million people.
It’s a stark contrast to where he was at the beginning of last year - as 2018 ended Charlie was once again employed, this time as a truck driver. Charlie isn’t in a home of his own yet, he’s still on the waiting list for a state house, but after three months in his car he moved in to temporary emergency housing. Now he’s living in a container supplied by his boss while he waits for more permanent housing. Even this small change and a piece of stability for him has meant physically and mentally he’s been able to slowly heal and build his life back. “It changed me completely. I’m more stable now that I’m living in better conditions.” Despite having a new job and improving health, Charlie is pessimistic about being picked out of 11,000 Kiwis on the waiting list for a state house. “Some people, the lucky ones, will get them but us poor people, the ones that have been waiting for years, we aren’t going to get it.”