New Zealand’s homeless have been moved off the streets, but the crisis endures

Franki began living on Auckland’s streets at age 15, shortly after his father died in 2018. He hunted for secret spots to sleep – the backs of buildings and cemeteries. There were times when he was frightened; times when the older street community took him under their wings.

He slept rough through New Zealand’s first pandemic lockdown, wandering the quiet roads, struggling to find food. There were few housing options for a teenager – rentals would not accept him, nor many motels. In mid-2020, worried for his health, he walked through the doors of Lifewise, an organisation that supports people into accommodation.

Since then, he has been on the move, bouncing between motels and emergency housing units. The constant disruption was difficult and tiring, he says. Two months ago – and four years after becoming homeless – he secured a spot in Lifewise’s new youth-focused transitional housing, a more stable but not permanent solution.

“When I lived in the park, I didn’t have any goals. Now I’ve been here for two months I want to achieve my goals – to get a job, save up for a car and get my security licence,” he says.

While it does give Franki a chance to reset, he is still in housing limbo. Lifewise will not evict him as long as he sticks to the house rules, but there is an expectation he will eventually find his own home. In the current rental market, that could take some time.

Franki is one of the tens of thousands of people either living in emergency accommodation, sleeping rough, or living in cars, garages and on couches across New Zealand – people at the beginning of a long and distressing road to find a permanent home.

A homeless person pushes a trolley.
Some social services in New Zealand are struggling to keep up with demand as cost-of-living pressures increase. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has one of the highest levels of homelessness in the OECD. As far back as 2018, Jacinda Ardern’s government pledged $100m to shelter the homeless population, following one of her party’s key 2017 campaign promises to tackle the housing crisis.

Then, at the start of the pandemic, New Zealand made headlines for appearing to eliminate sleeping rough – it invested millions of dollars and resources into moving people into accommodation as the country closed its borders and its citizens locked down.

But in the nearly two years since, applications for public housing have jumped by 8,000. There are now more than 25,500 households waiting for a home, with 89% of those in significant and urgent need. Among these are more than 10,000 people living in emergency accommodation such as motels, while another 5,226 households are waiting to be transferred out of public housing that is no longer appropriate. New Zealand’s definition of homelessness includes people in temporary accommodation, so while more people may be off the streets, the number of people deemed homeless is growing.

“I really struggle when I hear language like ‘we solved the housing crisis in New Zealand’,” says Helen Robinson, the Auckland City Mission chief executive, “because all we’ve done is transfer [people], by and large, to emergency accommodation, and that’s just not appropriate or [a] good place for people to live permanently.”

Housing ‘catastrophe’

For many New Zealanders, that reality is grim, as the cost of living increases. Housing affordability is at a record low, with the average property now worth 8.8 times the average household income, according to property analysts CoreLogic. For those households, it would take nearly 12 years to save enough money for a deposit.

A view of a residential area near Wellington, New Zealand
Housing prices in New Zealand have soared during the pandemic. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Nationally, the average house price is NZ$1.1m (US$740,000; £540,000) – up by $300,000 from the start of the pandemic, according to Quotable Value’s latest index. A ministry of business innovation and employment report for December 2021 shows median rents nationwide have reached $540 a week, up by $50 from the previous year. Meanwhile, a single person on minimum wage takes home roughly $678 after tax, and inflation has hit a three-decade high.

The Salvation Army says the situation has morphed into a housing catastrophe. In its State of the Nation report released this week, it said the term “housing crisis” has become commonplace.

“Maybe it is time – after looking at these housing supply, affordability and debt challenges – to consider elevating the term to something more than ‘crisis’, possibly towards ‘catastrophic levels’,” it said.

Services, like the Auckland City Mission, are struggling to keep up with the ever-swelling need.

In 2021, it distributed 50,000 food parcels – triple the number prior to the pandemic.

“We have an incredibly low unemployment rate here relatively, but what we’re actually seeing is a growth [in the number of] people who have inadequate income,” Robinson says.

Aaron Hendry, the youth coordinator at Lifewise, says the organisation is in touch with 60-70 young people in Auckland, like Franki, aged 14-25 years old who are either sleeping rough, living in “toxic and unhealthy environments” or are being shuffled between emergency accommodation. “That number is growing every day.”

Monte Cecilia Housing Trust’s waitlist has grown from 12-15 families in 2017, to between 300 and 400 families in the last year.

“I think while the government’s done a brilliant job at keeping the nation safe, sadly, I think homelessness and other economic issues have gone to the background, and we’ve lost a bit of traction,” its chief executive, Bernie Smith, says.

Whānau [families] that are feeling incredibly vulnerable, who are living in a temporary environment, need some sense that there is a hope and a future outside of all that’s occurring at the moment.”

Omicron fears

Now, as an Omicron outbreak takes off, the services that assist those facing housing and food deprivation are worried about how both staff and the people they support will cope.

Many families are still living in overcrowded housing, even if they have been placed in emergency accommodation, Hendry says.

“The ability to actually isolate in those spaces is going to be an extra challenge for those whānau.”

Robinson adds: “People who are vulnerably housed … their physical and mental health is so compromised. People are suffering the reality of structural injustice, the impacts of long-term poverty, the impacts of long-term trauma, and then you’re adding a pandemic on top of it.”

Robinson worries that the phased reopening of New Zealand’s borders will mean motels being used for emergency accommodation could slip out of reach, as businesses swivel back to tourists and international students.

A housing site under construction.
The government has been criticised for failing to adequately address the housing crisis. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

In a statement, the minister for social development and employment, Carmel Sepuloni, said the ministry was aware of the potential for pressure on motel demand once the international borders open, but that it is “constantly monitoring the situation”. “However, they have no current indication that motels are intending to stop offering emergency accommodation,” she said.

“Across government, there is a wider program of work under way aimed at increasing the supply of public housing and improving housing affordability and supply.

“This is the best solution to removing the ongoing need for emergency housing, but it will take time.”

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