Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mike Butler: Pimping homelessness

Regular as clockwork, as the first chilly nights roll around every year the mainstream media binge-laments either child poverty, killer rental properties, or this year, homelessness. If you look at the scanty data, these stories are pimping homelessness, making it more impressive than it actually is.

For instance, the only figure cited in this latest round of handwringing came from Prime Minister John Key, who said just over 400 people went to Work and Income saying they were homeless in March. (1)

Therefore, with around 480,000 rental properties in New Zealand, just 0.0008 percent of renters were homeless in March. The “problem” is grossly overstated.

Of course, sleeping in a doorway in the CBD is not the most comfortable experience and having to do it night after night would be depressing to say the least.

But the current crop of tales of woe turned up a homeless individual who was waiting for his 40 percent share of his deceased mother’s $500,000 estate. (2)

And those who give money and talk to “derelicts” in the main street with a begging sign often find that they do live indoors somewhere and become evasive when offers of help require work.

For the ragged needy, a begging bowl and time uptown could be a profitable way of whiling away the idleness of life of a benefit.

Rental properties are my line of work, and I see the revolving door between having a home and being homeless.

Every week I get some inquiries for accommodation from Work and Income, Citizens’ Advice, the Salvation Army, the local Maori social service provider, and various groups seeking to re-home released prisoners.

Some who apply for a room are living in a car or on the street. Others leave to live on the streets because rent money feeds a drinking problem or an addiction to pokies.

Everyone gets a look in but everyone must apply and provide evidence that they will be a tenant who pays rent on time, cares for the property, and be a good neighbour.

One referral seeking a boarding house room from the Salvation Army had run a substantial business but lost it all in a relationship break-up so hit the bottle. His drunken, disorderly behaviour led to eviction. It was summer so he went to live on the street. The Salvation Army also had given up on him. Later that year he featured in a Herald story, living under a bridge in Auckland.

Few reporters covering the so-called epidemic of homelessness ask (a) how many are homeless, and (b) why are individuals homeless.

The NZ Herald made no attempt to state the number of homeless in Auckland this year, although in January of last year, it reported that the number was 147 the previous October. The best the Herald could do was to say “anecdotally it is increasing” and that was a quote from Auckland mayoralty hopeful Mark Thomas. (3)

Homeless individuals who told their stories included a young mother with two toddlers who lost the roof over her head in a relationship break-up and a chap who went to Auckland to work and encountered a stand-down period Work and Income meaning he had no money for rent.

Green Party social housing spokesperson Marama Davidson said she knew plenty of people who were living in garages, sharing bedrooms and sleeping in other people's lounges. Mangere Budgeting and Family Support Services chief executive Darryl Evans added living under a bridge and living in a shipping container.(4)

He also classifies people living in boarding houses as homeless, arguing that “a boarding house was built to house people coming out of prison, or drug dependency units”.

To categorise people living in boarding houses as homeless is incorrect. Boarding houses have been part of New Zealand’s accommodation since 1840. The boarding houses I run are the home of choice for numerous single men because they are affordable.

I have not seen a reporter ask any families living a garage whether the garage was part of a rental property or an owner-occupied property. Landlords weed out overcrowding and living in garages because of the extra wear and tear.

In the last overcrowding I had, the tenant asked me to help get rid of the overstayers because he could not stand the overcrowding any more. Ten people were living in a two-bedroom flat for a while before I spotted it.

He showed my warning letter to his brother-in-law and they moved on, but only to bludge off another rellie. Even though they were workers with reasonable income they just didn’t like paying rent.

So if homelessness affects just 0.0008 percent of renters and there is a certain amount of living off the efforts of others associated with overcrowding, why are reporters pimping homelessness?

Much of it goes back to politics. Labour is out in the cold and, if polling is any indication, looks like staying that way for a further term. Seasonal hit jobs are manufactured to take the shine off Key and the National Party.

One hit set up by Labour flunkies and enabled by compliant television reporters had Labour leader Andrew Little turn up at a house supposedly overcrowded with 17 occupants.

But then the homeowner wanders out to tell the journos there is no problem, there is no overcrowding, the tent is for furniture and material while he renovates, and not for homeless people.

The rest goes back to social service agencies with an interest in housing living on government grants who are putting out their begging bowls as we head towards the Budget.

We have learned from the Auckland City Mission’s Christmas dinners that as the free meal gets bigger each year the line of people seeking a freebie gets longer.

Politicians who push for more social housing have not yet learned that more cheap, government-subsidised housing simply means a longer line of applicants.

1.Hundreds tell WINZ they are homeless, Radio NZ, May 16, 2016.'re-homeless
2.Homeless man waits eight years for his mother’s money. Stuff, May 18, 2015.
3. Mark Thomas: Homeless plan not working, NZ Herald, May 16, 2016.
4. Plea for Budget to deliver on Auckland, Radio NZ, May 16, 2016.


paul scott said...

Not on homelessness but about the quality of prospective accommodation seekers.
Many home owners in Christchurch got badly burned after the earthquake. Short term renting is a dangerous business. Some kind of social discord allowed people to think the landlord was a rip off artist approaching evil. The rental rates down here were at first supported by the Insurance Companies, but not for long.
Ameteur landlords floating off to Australia for a few months returned to some gruesome realities of repairs and maintenance. Many vow never to return to offering rental.
I ask land owners all the time, about their journal ledgers of rental.
They usually look at me blankly, oblivious to overheads, lost opportunity costs, theft and unforeseen damage.
I have a policy at my home. Dogs and Cats welcome. Children with parents no.

Peter said...

Nice article Mike. So true!! We have to ask why are they homeless? I also ask why they are sleeping in a car? If they can afford a car they should be able to afford accommodation. Another aspect of the social housing questions is - what are we providing? We really need to examine what we define as 'adequate' housing. For example why not boarding houses for single people? A room or a suite with shared kitchen/laundry facilities. No need for garage and private entrance etc. Group living facilities for polynesian families who are used to this style of living.
If we provide then with land, they park their cars on it. If we provide them with lots of living space, they bring in more relatives. It's time to rethink what they need,what they are entitled to and what they deserve.

Pauline I said...

Just prior to centralization of the former Auckland councils, I heard at a public meeting in Henderson South Primary school, a crown minister ridicule the then mayor for his open inclusion of Pacific Island and Maori on his staff. The atmosphere was electric and redneck.
What followed was the selloff of social housing and the escalation of housing shortages for the low income of Auckland. There are Pacific Island people wanting to enjoy the same quality of family closeness that the rest of us small family's can decently accommodate under one roof, who have lived in garages for years. The issue has just been less obvious. With the influx of migrants and Christchurch re-locators, the squeeze has highlighted what was already there. That they want to spend their money on dignifying clothing, hot water, electricity., the mandatory relief of family back in the Islands, immediate family without work, the solo parent in part time employment, is not for us to judge. Culturally, they share their resources. What does shock them and is beginning to dawn on the rest of us now is that the meanness that we have presented to them by our self righteous posturing has created a subculture of not just homeless poor families in cars, but angry, progressively undisciplined and jobless men, some as former underachieving school dropouts, others clever multicultural misfits, almost all physically unwell and untreated, the ignored self harming abused, with increasing mental disturbances due to being preyed on by drug pushers, the institutionalized disabled trophy beggar, the unserved clients of government funded work brokers, the young able men with debilitating mental health treatment stupor, the frustrations suppressed alcohol abusers, these homeless victims of a non existent reintegration service of protection and rehabilitative care. We are responsible for creating a hate generation whose instincts are sharpened by inexcusable neglect from those who should know better- who declare that if they do not cross our paths, they must not exist. Our unloved men who experience different social services to the rest of us, who should be free to make an assault complaint like the rest of us, who deserve a job or choices to train for as we do, who should be treated for emotional pain and trauma like the rest of us, and given the same amount of time and care to adjust to separation and loss like the best of us. We have a lot of bridges to build between us and them again if we want to be proud of the society we help create.