To help end homelessness, we need to be the sort of people who are willing to get involved each other’s lives, writes Aaron Hendry.
The closure of Tiny Deane’s night shelter in Rotorua highlights what’s lacking in much of the public discussion around ending homelessness: humanity.
Homelessness is not simply a “problem we need to fix”, in order to clean up our cities. Homelessness is the reality that we have whanau, real people, struggling to survive on our streets.
It is the reality that we, as a community, as a society, as a nation, have failed. We have failed to look after our own.
A few years ago, I was speaking to a man who was living on the street. I asked him what his story was, expecting to hear about drugs, crime and general bad decision making. His response was much more straightforward than that.
He simply had nowhere else to go.
He told me how he had no family to take him in, no friends who were willing to help him. He spoke to me about his desperation to find work and how he believed if he could only get a job, his situation would change. His world would turn around.
But no one wanted to hire a streetie.
No one was willing to take the risk on a person they believed to be a criminal, a drug addict or mentally unhinged. It didn’t matter that these things weren’t true. Perception sometimes is reality.
Another older man I met last year told me a similar story. He spoke to me about how he had been living on the street for several years now. With nowhere to go, and no family to turn to, he had applied for a Housing NZ home. But,there weren’t enough houses. And he was a single man.
Families got priority. He understood. He didn’t think kids should be sleeping in cars, or on the street. But understanding didn’t keep him warm at night.
Often, we point the finger at the government. The government is not doing enough, has not done enough, will not do enough. But though the government does have some responsibility, we as a collective community also must take some ownership.
Because at the end of the day it is our whanau who are out there living on the streets. It is our people who are set to face the cold for another hard night.
I recognise that for most of us the problem may feel just too big. But perhaps we need to remember that homelessness doesn’t just happen. People don’t go to sleep in a warm comfy bed one night and then just magically wake up on the street the next morning. No, the journey to becoming homeless begins in our communities.
A new Salvation Army survey found that 37 percent of those surveyed were unable to buy food due to needing to prioritise other bills. Sixteen percent were unable to pay their rent or mortgage because they simply did not have the money to pay on time.
These are our neighbours. Our whanau, our people.
Tiny Deane didn’t see a “homeless problem”. He saw his whanau shivering and he said “stuff the system, let’s give ‘em a hand.” He was shut down. But his example is one we should all look to.
Building houses is not going to fix this problem fast enough. The government can do what they can, but the reality is that while they build houses our people are still suffering.
The question lies at the feet of the people.
Will we be a people who ignore the suffering of our most vulnerable? Who say, “oh that’s a shame, wish the government would do something”? Or will we see a need, and will we act?
Perhaps the first step this winter is to get to know your neighbours – to notice if they are struggling to keep the power on, to reach out and offer your support.
To end homelessness, we need communities that care about each other. Communities that are willing to get involved each other’s lives. Communities that are willing to risk a little bit for the sake of helping their neighbour, and in doing so potentially end homelessness before it even happens.
I believe that our communities have the power to heal themselves. We have the answers to the questions our people face.
The solution to homelessness in Aotearoa will not be found in Wellington. It dwells in the hearts and minds of the people.
So, what will we do?
Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland. He writes about the intersection of theology and social justice at whenlambsaresilent.wordpress.com.