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Out of the Comfort Zone-01
March 4, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage Splash |
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Out of the Comfort Zone – a Tale of Occasional Homelessness

It’s a well-known fact that New Zealand is in the middle of a housing crisis. Rent goes up year  after year, there are never enough rental properties for the general population, and the ones that do exist are often pretty subpar. But renting, for many students, is the only option. Come January/February each year, hundreds of students desperately chase listing after listing in the search for a decent home. The pages of stuff.co.nz are currently littered with headlines screaming, “Lizzie McGee applied for 50 rentals, got nothing!”

I’d seen the flurry. I knew that the chances of being consistently housed throughout my university career were slim. But growing up in an affluent neighbourhood and attending “rich kid school” meant I’d never really thought about being destitute before, even though I knew it was a possibility. Which is why it was a complete shock to find myself on a rooftop in Hataitai on New Years Eve 2015, effectively homeless.

 

(I should clarify; I wasn’t sleeping on the roof. I had a very seasoned couch to sleep on, in the living room of a man I didn’t know well enough. I was also sharing the living room with three other guys—not sure what their situation was, and if they were homeless too, or just celebrating. #studentlyf)

 

It had been a ripper of a year, full of changes I hadn’t foreseen. My parents and I had had a falling out, and I’d estranged myself from my family with a very emotionally charged email. My friends had helped me change my phone number and my last name, and I had vowed to make this my Fresh Start™. I’d spent Christmas away from home for the first time in my life, trying to “adult” on a solo vacation. I then ended up missing a bus in Christchurch, and had to hitchhike half the length of the South Island to catch a ferry back to Wellington—only to arrive to my old flat broken up, a crazy landlord demanding $10K for $75’ worth of damage, and nowhere left to go.

 

And that’s how I wound up on the rooftop, gazing blankly at some power lines, counting down to 2016.

 

I’d been sheltered all my life (mind the pun) by my conservative parents. They’d worked hard to give me every benefit possible in life, so when I wound up on some dude’s couch, I felt like I’d failed. And as I’d had to give up family ties, I didn’t have the warm hearth of my parents’ very lush house to fall back to. This left me staring at the bleak reality of finding another place to live, and fast, in a crazy rental market with little money and little help. This was my first time  completely on my own, and as much as I’d always relished the idea of standing on my own two feet, I was terrified.

I’d been helped into my previous flat—my first flat ever—by my friends and their families, who had kitted out the place so comfortably, we hadn’t wanted for anything. The four of us had managed a seamless transition—straight from our hall of residence into an idyllic paradise of a living situation, like something out of a teen movie, complete with pillow-fights in underwear and best-friendshipness. Our property manager had been a smart, sensible woman who we’d trusted; the man who lived downstairs was a lovely older gentleman who kept to himself, and everything was perfect… Until the property manager was fired by the same man downstairs—who, it turned out, was our landlord. At the end of our tenancy, he withheld our bond for half a year, insisting we go to court for non-existent “damages” and “intimidation”. While we were waiting to settle things through the Tenancy Tribunal, my flatmates decided to move on with their lives, to different cities and better futures and whole families. I was left all alone in Wellington. The prospect of living with strangers was daunting for an inexperienced princess with daddy issues. But at this point, I didn’t have a choice.

 

Homelessness isn’t a problem unique to students, but apart from the usual January/February flatting frenzy, the media tends to focus on other demographics. A quick Google search turns up result after result about single mothers, rough sleepers, and a headline about homeless families being charged to live in their cars (wut). The NZ Herald reported just last February that 80–90% of homeless applicants were turned away from emergency shelters. With that in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why students aren’t usually the focus of the homelessness debate. Students, more often than not, belong to the demographic known as the “transitionally homeless”; left temporarily on someone’s couch because of unforeseen circumstances.

 

Even so, it would be nice to have more discussion around the student struggle to ensure a roof over our heads. The gist of the comment thread under any article exploring student hardship is, “we’ve all been there snowflakes, suck it up.” Everyone’s aware that there’s a housing crisis, but no one wants to do anything about it. The realities of not having a decent place to live sailed right over my head, too, until I no longer had one.

I was by no means alone in my belated realisation that sometimes, maybe, things get a wee bit rough—e.g. the three other guys in the Hataitai living room with me. There are a countless number of students living in inadequate flats throughout Wellington, who pay top dollar and still freeze in winter. There are students working multiple jobs while studying full-time to make ends meet. And there are shitty, shitty tenancy management companies (I’m looking at you, Quinovic!) who are slow to move and quick to demand more and more and more. For heaven’s sake, just look at crazy-Kdawg, the landlord who was taking me and my flatties to court for $10K, all because the wood in our bathroom vanity drawers were a little bit warped. Flatting is so hit-and-miss that sometimes, homelessness on a dude’s couch is the best option.

As the New Year chimed in, the guys I was staying with shook hands and wished each other luck. I knew, in that moment, that it might not get much better than this. Until I was out of the flat-race, odds were that I—like everyone around me—would have to make do with whatever until I could own a home of my own. The days of a comfortable “home” to retreat to when bad times rolled round were well and truly behind me. But like everyone else, I would also have to make the best of it. Stability was a far-off dream, I reasoned, but Hataitai rooftops are forever. So I got down and hugged the lads who had taken care of me when I was at my lowest. And the New Year began.

I did find a new place to stay, in the end. A lovely Hataitai room with a view, the nicest place I’d ever stayed. The drama from my previous flat subsided when we trounced K-dawg in the Tenancy Tribunal. Apart from my abysmal grades, things were chugging along smoothly. But then, four months into my new life, I was forced to leave my new home when a mentally unstable flatmate became aggressive and threatening towards me. And I found myself on the floor of another generous dude friend. And the cycle continued. But this time, I reasoned, there was no need to be disheartened. I’d been homeless before, and survived. Until my state of affairs was affecting my health and wellbeing, there was no reason not to be optimistic.

 

The state of our country’s houses is shit, guys, but let’s treat this terrifying battle to not-be-homeless as one long adventure. After all, we all have dude friends. May their couches be forever warm.

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