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The hidden faces of homelessness

The hidden faces of homelessness

World Homeless Day, in October, is a time to reflect on who the homeless are in our community and the ways we can help reach out to them.

The hidden faces of homelessness

A homeless man kneels on the side of a busy city street, bent over in supplication. A handwritten cardboard sign in his hands reads, “Please help me.” He is the visible reality of homelessness that many of us recognise. We may throw him a few coins or even a note. We then move on with our day, caught up in our own busy lives and the things that must be ticked off our to-do lists. We don’t give any further thought to the broader problem, which has been on the rise in New Zealand since the global financial crisis in 2008.

According to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, New Zealand has a large incidence of homelessness relative to other countries around the world. However, the report also states that our broad definitions of homelessness can partly explain the number, which indicates we at least recognise the problem, an important step towards doing something about it.

Who are the homeless?

The official description used in New Zealand, as defined by Statistics New Zealand, states, “Homelessness is defined as living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.”

This accounts for a much larger number of homeless than just the rough sleepers we see on our streets, and a significant percentage are young people and women. They are the homeless we don’t see out on the streets because they might live in cars or garages, sleep on trains or spend nights on the couches of family and friends or whoever can put them up for a few nights.

“We would like to educate the community that homelessness isn’t just ‘the old man sleeping under a bridge’, a stereotype most people immediately visualise,” says Heath Fryer, acting coordinator of the Reconnect and DOORWAYS initiatives at Uniting. In New Zealand, an analysis of census data from the University of Otago found youth under 15 years of age account for 24 per cent of the homeless, and 48 per cent of homeless people are women.

“Homelessness has a huge impact on young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing,” Fryer explains. “It affects their ability to engage or maintain engagement with education and employment, disrupts their relationships with their families, friends and peers, and can influence the misuse of drugs and alcohol.”

No place to call home

Since the GFC, the rental market has become more competitive. A surge in property prices has forced people to rent for longer, and the extra demand has ultimately forced out low income earners. Private rental has become particularly unviable for young people, Fryer points out. “For homeless youth, a lack of appropriate and affordable housing options means young people continue in a cycle of homelessness.”

When youth don’t have a place they can call home, they can become anxious and distressed, he says. “In order for young people to thrive, they must first be safe. What we see is transient, distressed and worried young people who are couch surfing, staying with friends and family, or in temporary accommodation for short periods. Without a home that’s safe and sustainable, they are anxious they will outstay their welcome. That’s a common story among homeless youth.”

How can you help?

World Homeless Day reminds us that if we want to tackle a big problem, it starts with small steps. At events, participants could walk through an interactive maze to learn about the experience of having a home to becoming homeless.

The global awareness campaign is about education. It aims to challenge the stereotypes and labels we associate with homelessness and instead think about ways we can offer care and support. Heath Fryer, acting coordinator of Reconnect and Doorways at Uniting, suggests we get in touch with our local homelessness service and support community awareness projects they may run.

Other things you can do to help include a donation of money, food or time at a local homelessness agency. If you have more time and the inclination, you may want to advocate on the behalf of the homeless.

In New Zealand, extra money has been allocated to the Social Housing Fund to help support the growth of community housing providers. It’s believed many more high-need families will get access to warm, dry and affordable homes. Government initiatives often sound good on paper, but it’s usually the will of the people that ensure results.

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