Monday, September 29, 2014

Homelessness Hidden, Ignored and Punished


Homelessness is generally associated with people who are suffering from mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse. Wellington's infamous Blanket Man was an example of a stereotypical homeless person who made a personal choice to live rough despite offers of accommodation. Homelessness is also regarded to be a feature of large urban centres and not likely to occur in places like Invercargill. While I am sure there are homeless people who still live on the streets because of a personal choice to do so, New Zealand is experiencing growing numbers of homeless people who hadn't planned to live this way, but have limited choices.

To me it seems inconceivable that a country with a relatively small population, and as resource rich as New Zealand, should struggle to house those desperate for shelter. But times have changed and housing is no longer considered a human right and homeless shelters and emergency accommodation are being closed in many centres despite the demand.

The two environments where one would expect a dregree of homelessness would be in our largest city where we are already aware of a housing shortage and Christchurch where the earthquake recovery is ongoing. Surprisingly most cities in New Zealand actually have growing levels of homelessness. Palmerston North and Invercargill both have a homeless problem due to a shortage of emergency housing and support services for the homeless are experiencing funding cuts. Invercargill City Councillor Alan Dennis expressed concern that money can be found to look after stray animals but not people.

The homeless problem can be an invisible one, with many sleeping rough outside hidden from view or couch surfing and in Christchurch's case many are using abandoned houses.

It is bad enough that we appear to be ignoring the problem and making little effort to find or build emergency accommodation around the country, but homelessness is also being associated with criminality. While I am sure there will be an element of criminal behaviour with some homeless, it is a dangerous to assume that the two are always related and it is leading to human rights abuses.

Police in Christchurch are issuing non-association orders to stop the homeless from congregating and this is clearly a breech of their rights especially if the criminality they are attempting to manage involves breaking into empty houses for shelter. The worst story I've heard about homelessness in Christchurch involves a pregnant woman being forced to sleep rough because there is no accommodation available. Despite the woman's background it is heartless in the extreme to cast a vulnerable person and her unborn baby aside like this.

Compassion is something that is quickly becoming a rare quality in this country for those who are struggling and it appears designing a new flag has a higher priority than providing all New Zealanders a roof over their heads. Key obviously wants his legacy to be a piece of cloth on a flag pole rather than building homes for the homeless and lifting 25% of our children out of poverty. Appalling!

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