Image: Victoria Hearn
The facts, unfortunately, speak for themselves: Aotearoa has the highest rate of homelessness in the OECD – by far. More than 40,000 Kiwis – or 1 per cent of the total population, a rate about double that of Australia – live on the streets or in emergency housing. And even scarier still: the numbers are rising.
Of course, a number of organisations are working to do something about homelessness, most notably Lifewise, which holds its annual Big Sleepout in winter each year. But one of the biggest criticisms of events such as the Big Sleepout – an event in which business leaders, political leaders, and other prominent people spend an evening sleeping rough in Auckland to raise awareness and funds – is that they do little to address the root causes of homelessness, and can be used by politicians as a PR exercise rather than a genuine effort to help.
Victoria Hearn, Head of Service Design and Development for Lifewise’s Youth Housing Service, has heard the criticism – and claims it’s unwarranted because there are bigger issues, such as the causes of homelessness. “Homelessness isn’t the problem, homelessness is the result of a whole lot of other problems,” she says. “Homelessness isn’t just about not having a home. I think sometimes once we hear the word ‘homeless’ we attach a whole lot of stereotypes and assumptions to that person. It seems that people can very easily walk past a homeless youth on the street.
“But what if it was a young woman who was uplifted from her home through no fault of her own at 2 years old? A young woman who then never found a place of stability after that and was moved from caregiver to caregiver without ever feeling like she belonged? A young woman who had to move schools every year and never got to make lasting friendships? A young woman who at 17 years old was discharged from state care and spent her last year of high school trying to find a place to stay that night instead of being able to study for exams? A young woman who was victim to a system that she had no control over and eventually gave up on her dreams? This ‘girl’ and this ‘homeless youth’ are the same person. But the girl seeing on the street hustling for money to buy food – we just see her as homeless.”
The sad reality is that homelessness usually affects women, children, trans and queer people far worse than it affects cis men. “Women face unique challenges when they are homeless,” Hearn explains. “Health issues are of particular importance, including family planning, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Women who are homeless are at a higher risk for pregnancy complications due to lack of prenatal care, poor nutrition, stress and exposure to violence. They also have little choice as to the timing and circumstances surrounding conception and can become pregnant due to victimisation, economic survival (they’re more likely to exchange sex for shelter or food), lack of access to contraceptives, uncertain fertility and, like any human being, a desire for intimacy.”
Hearn believes that homelessness is a women’s rights issue. “We do still have a stubborn gender pay gap and women continue, on average, to earn less than men. And that, in turn, means households supported by women are paying larger-than-average proportions of income on rent – which means less financial security. When women flee domestic abuse, they are often forced to leave their homes. We know that domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness for women and families.”
And, Hearn adds, there are reasons homelessness among women is easy to overlook. “Homeless women are often less visible than men. Homeless women tend to remain out of sight, away from areas where homeless people congregate, for fear of violence, rape or other abuse.”
Rising income equality is also a concern for Hearn because, she says, it’s contributing to rising numbers of people becoming homeless. “We have one of the widest gaps of all developed countries,” she explains. “The increase in inequality has had far-reaching effects for our society – perhaps the most visible effect is homelessness and rough sleeping. At the end of the day, homelessness is an extreme form of poverty. Income makes a big difference to the kinds of lives people can lead and the opportunities available to them.”
So how can we stem the tide of rising homelessness? Hearn says one thing to consider is what’s known as design thinking. “Design thinking is a methodology used to solve complex problems,” she explains. “In its simplest form, it’s about putting the person who you are trying to create solutions for at the centre of everything you do. It’s about developing an understanding of their unmet, or unarticulated needs, and trying to create desirable solutions. Another key aspect is that the design mindset is not problem-focused, it’s solution-focused and action orientated.”
As grim as the data is, Hearn says she believes that homelessness is a problem we can solve – if we have the will to solve it. “We know what we need to do – we just don’t have the funding to do it,” she says.
“We need government support,” Hearn says. “Currently in New Zealand we have no Minister of Homelessness, no specific policy documents around homelessness and no national strategy to end homelessness. We can’t make strategic long-term effective plans with short-term unstable funding.”
But are there things individuals can do to help, too? Hearn says the answer is most definitely yes. “For a start, it’s important to change the way we talk, and think, about people who are homeless,” she says. “It’s up to us as individuals to think about how we might be able to be part of the solution. In its simplest form, it’s about caring for one other.”
Our society could certainly do with more of that.
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