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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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People Experiencing Homelessness

Salient wanted to examine the issue of homelessness in Wellington. There are now more people experiencing homelessness than ever before. This feature examines their treatment.

In the course of my research, I went out on a Tuesday night to interview a Wellington fixture who dwells at the end of Courtenay Place near the Fix, often referred to by his signature request: ”Scuse Me”, and his wife, Miri (“Māori for Marie, sweetheart”).

They, as a group, go by an eclectic variety of names. Doctorate researchers refer to them as those ‘experiencing severe house deprivation’. Local councils opt instead for ‘independent money accruers’, or one of the countless variations thereof. My grandparents use the phrase ‘people living rough’, while the cruder insist on the slur of ‘bum’, usually prefaced with a choice profanity. A lot of us, however, choose the markedly simpler ‘homeless’ to describe those we see late at night, lingering on the sidewalks, perhaps asking passing pedestrians for money, food, a couple of cigarettes. Sometimes they sit, sometimes they stand, some lay huddled in blankets and some brave the elements with only clothes, but they all share in common desperate circumstances that render them unable to achieve sufficient nourishment, housing and other amenities. The term this article will use is ‘people experiencing homelessness’, in order to avoid disguising their plight in platitudes and academic-speak, and in an attempt to negate the dehumanising effects of the term ‘homelessness’ – but more on that later.

For now, the basic statistics: it is estimated that nationwide, anywhere between 8000 and 20,000 of the population are experiencing homelessness, with anywhere between an estimated 80 and 200 of them residing here in Wellington. The numbers are difficult to gauge for several reasons – obviously, many lack a fixed address and live as close to off-the-grid as possible, and there are many definitions of ‘homelessness’. For some sociologists and support groups, having a house or a home does not mitigate a state of homelessness if it does not: a) constitute the kind of home one can call their own, and: b) if, aside from having a place to sleep and reside, they do not have the means to survive in a manner akin to First World living of their own volition (or that they don’t want to), which results in them continuing to beg or busk, essentially earning their living off the generosity of passers-by. It’s important to note that begging and ‘homelessness’ do not overlap perfectly. There is an intersection, but it is not guaranteed – some that ‘beg’ are on the dole and find it does not cover their expenses; others have been denied the dole because of unwillingness or language barriers. One statistic that can be confidently reported is that homelessness is on the rise, both overseas (allegedly over 50,000 in New York) and here in New Zealand.

There are measures in place to support those experiencing homelessness. The City Mission and The Salvation Army, as well as local food kitchens, provide support, but very much in an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-a-cliff way – and, according to several people I interviewed who prefer not to be identified, see their function as a temporary measure (some report being declined for seeking assistance too often, although I stress this is uncorroborated). There is the famed Shelter at the top of Taranaki St, which offers shelter through the night but which is often filled to capacity and is chronically underfunded. Tragically, the director of the shelter has been quoted as being the only person available to Police to identify the bodies of deceased recipients of his welfare at the morgue.

Meanwhile, overseas, more inventive ways of tackling the problem have been used. In Austin, they were hired as Wi-Fi transmitters (I shit you not); the appalling but aptly named television show Bumfights paid people experiencing homelessness to fight each other for money.

Here in Wellington, our city council took a different route. In a widely publicised campaign, they announced that they would address the problem of people experiencing homelessness by instigating an ‘Alternative Giving Fund’: boxes were strategically placed around Wellington City for people to put their coins in in lieu of giving straight to the “beggars” (Wellington Council’s words). Afterwards? “All donations go to six organisations in Wellington that help get people off the street and keep them off. As well as providing basic needs such as food, clothing or transport, these services also help to provide sustainable solutions that prevent the need to beg.”

It was, of course, a complete disaster for those experiencing homelessness, in spite of the masterminds who created the scheme insisting otherwise. Those who beg now gain much less money, while few are donating to the boxes. Part of this can be attributed, perhaps, to the tacit admission made by the Council that these people are not deserving of your money. The initiative was based on false or dubious premises from the start – claims that those experiencing homelessness spend their money on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes were unconfirmed scaremongering and got the whole ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ thing completely topsy-turvy. Substance abuse is often a symptom, and not a contributing factor, towards homelessness, and even if they do spend money on substances that we find unsavoury – is that not their right? The more wealthy can indulge in vices without sanctimonious judgment raining down on them, and by forcing those experiencing homelessness to operate under a different framework to our own, we dehumanise them. It also smacks of attempting to rub a serious issue under the rug and forget that it isn’t there, to attribute blame to the victims, all in the names of a palatable and sanitised CBD where no one has to consider the ramifications of economic downturn or other misfortune. And perhaps most galling of all, $40,000 was spent on a programme that could have better benefited the people it was trying to help by being invested in boring old rehabilitation.

It seems remarkable, but in all of the initiatives discussed thus far, the simplest and most effective – housing rehabilitation, workplace rehabilitation and substance rehabilitation – has not been mentioned once, despite such areas being underfunded and unable to keep up with demand. It is wonderful that these programmes exist, of course, but as it is, they’re only serving a select group of those experiencing homelessness – and funding that could be used to help is being allocated to hare-brained schemes that were doomed to fail from the outset. It’s not hard to feel a little disgruntled.

So, what can we do? According to one damning psychological study, when we perceive people experiencing homelessness, “the homeless are not recognised as human relative to other groups. They actually are perceived… more like objects, such as tables”. I’m wary of deifying homeless people here – while some are lovely, many can be unpleasant, aggressive and frightening, and it’s important to remember that with humanity comes negative qualities – but I think that viewing people experiencing homelessness as human, treating them as equals and engaging with their plight, is a pretty damn-solid way to start.

***

Note: The following interview is related verbatim. Given the subject matter, I thought it best to avoid mediating their voice or integrating it into my own writing. xx

Philip: Hello! My name is Philip McSweeney and I was hoping to ask a few questions?

Miri: You can ask me. What do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything… I’ll tell you this, me and my man [gestures at him] have been together for 22 years and he used to be a minister… trained to be a minister… worked with the Army for ten years… and I’m well-educated too, I bet you didn’t guess that [laughs].

P: I don’t doubt it at all, I promise!

M: Well it’s true, I got my UE and my School Certificate, but people still look at me like I’m trash, y’know, like I’m a pisshead… I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs and my partner smokes [puts an arm affectionately round him, passes him a cigarette], but why is it any of their business? I’ll tell you why – because I’m Māori, I speak the language, I have whenua, taonga, ties to the land. I’ll tell you this too, there are more and more people on the streets these days, more and more, up and down the country; lots of young fellas too, it’s awful, and the fuckin’ Salvation Army? The City Mission? Don’t do shit. We’ve been kicked out, him and I; been there too often, they said. Kicked out on Christmas too; it’s disgusting.

P: So there’s no love lost between you and the City Mission then?

M: You might have read about it in the papers: it was a big scandal, they were feeding people junk food and fake milk and shit. And fizzy drinks! [Shakes her head.]

P: If it’s not a, umm, too personal a question, are people usually very polite? Are any ever rude?

[At this moment, a man approaches her partner and says: “Hey, it’s her birthday,” before gesturing at a girl in his entourage, who waves. “Do a haka for her! Give her a fucking… a fucking nose-kiss mate.” He doesn’t oblige, but does call out: “Happy birthday, sweetheart! Well done.”]

M: Me and him, we been together 22 years now, did you know? Sorry, what do you want to know? Well, I’m not afraid of speaking my mind [laughs] so I don’t mind when other people do too… although I’ll speak my mind right back at them [laughs]. When people just walk past you though eh… I’m a human too, y’know. And they think I’m homeless? Don’t call me homeless, man. Māori TV did a thing on us [gestures at her partner], called us a “homeless couple” – we’re not fuckin’ homeless, we have a place out in the Hutt, we have places to sleep. We’re just poor [laughs].

P: I see you’re wearing a Warriors T-shirt and I, ahh, grew up in Auckland so I, ahh, have an affinity for them. Have you had opportunity to travel much, y’know, see New Zealand?

M: Do you know, I haven’t seen a Warriors game in ages: [we] go to the pub sometimes but they don’t always let us in no more. Yeah I seen it, and I see up and down this country more and more people out on the streets, not all young, people who just have nothing, love, nothing… You’re writing an article for a magazine, how old are you?

P: 21.

M: Well you haven’t seen anything: I’m sorry but it’s true, you come back in ten years and nothing will have changed… All along the country, people are on the streets, begging ‘cos they have to, and that’s my iwi, my hoa… If my koruru could see… [Pauses.] Sorry love, I told you I was Māori! [Laughs.] Lotta Māori kids too, kicked out, can’t get no work, have to hit the streets [shakes her head] hinapouri… my whānau, my whānau.

P: What can people do, people like me I mean [gestures at designer-label shoes, pale white skin], to make things better, to, umm, improve things? I mean, it seems quite complex, I guess.

M: The only you can do honey… vote. Vote. Tell your friends to get up off their arses and vote too… John Key and his mates they don’t care shit, nuh-uh. Not that Labour was much better… or Mana… But the Māori Party… All parties need educated and clever Māori people, brown people, to represent us, but there’s only one in National, barely any in Labour and he [I assume Taito Phillip Field] got arrested… serves him right, but. We need more Māori [pause] sorry, what was your name? Philip, we need more Māori leaders, or people that have seen things like I’ve seen, been through what we’ve been through. Know what else you could do, Philip? Give me three bucks so I can hit up the supermarket [laughs]; yup, everywhere else [motions at Fix]… too expensive. Too bloody expensive to survive, I’ll tell you that. So, what else you want to know?

Miri kindly offered to speak to anyone who has further questions, or who just wants to say hey or shoot the shit. You can find her on Thursdays, after 1 pm, outside the Fix at the end of Courtenay Place, though she asks that you don’t come in the evening if you want a longer chat. After all, she’s working.

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