So today in Question Time there were a few questions about homelessness. It’s timely – the Big Sleep Out is on, and Auckland council has apparently banned begging (or vagrancy, it’s not entirely clear which). What’s interesting is something Nick Smith said in his answer/s: namely, that the government doesn’t consider people to be homeless if they’re living in a night shelter.
I’m not surprised by this at all. It matches my conversation with Housing New Zealand back in June, when they told me that they wouldn’t even assess me until I’d spent two weeks in Wellington with no home, simply because they asked if I knew anyone in the city and I said yes. I was expected to crash on other people’s couches until then, I guess, which I wasn’t particularly happy about – Gravey and Kristina were awesome in letting me stay there for four nights, which isn’t even close to two weeks, and after that I went to a hostel. But according to the government, I wasn’t homeless.
To be clear, this isn’t the actual definition of homelessness. Primary homelessness refers to people who are sleeping rough, but that’s only about 17% of the homeless population. Secondary homelessness is the other 83% – people who have some kind of roof over their head because they’re couch surfing, in a shelter, a hostel, a motel, etc. If you’ve seen The Price of Happyness (sic), Will Smith’s character spends quite a lot of time living in a motel – by proper counting, he was homeless all through that movie, but not according to our government.
This is why they don’t call it houselessness, guys. The problem is a lack of secure housing. Night-by-night or even week-by-week accommodation doesn’t cut it – you can never put down roots or acquire anything you can’t transport easily. You don’t have a home. Chances are you don’t have a kitchen, let alone a laundry, and that’s a big problem because it’s adding to your costs in a huge way if you can’t cook your own food and have to pay laundromat prices to get your clothes clean. Even some of the bedsits I looked at on TradeMe lacked facilities in that way – one of them boasted a “kitchen” that was a metal bench with a sink and a microwave, and a couple of shelves above it. It might be legal to rent or sell accommodation in that manner (from what I recall it needs to have “a means of cooking food”) but to me a kitchen has to come with an oven (and preferably a fridge/freezer, but I’d be more okay about getting my own there). Several of them didn’t have laundries, though some of them were part of complexes with shared laundries. They tended to also have their own bathrooms, unlike share houses, boarding houses, hostels, backpackers and some cheaper motels, which is a huge plus on the hygiene front, especially if you have kids or disabilities.
Simply put, focusing only on primary homelessness is just plain wrong. It’s shortsighted and does nothing to address the lack of secure housing itself, which is the real problem. Sleeping rough is worse than couch surfing, etc, there’s no argument there, but moving people off the streets and into shitty temporary accommodation doesn’t fix anything.