Nicole, a working single mother of two young children, moved from a damp, rotting house with an unsafe and malfunctioning electrical system into a cycle of homelessness. Over several months, the family moved from cramped emergency accommodation to the homes of friends and family.
This precarious existence was marked by overcrowded living, the small family’s deteriorating health and an almost overwhelming fear the family might be forced to split up.
Homelessness is defined as people not having safe and secure housing. The popular image of homelessness is people living on the streets or in vehicles. But the largest category of homeless people in New Zealand is single parents with children, usually living in severely overcrowded accommodation, according to a University of Otago study of the most recent census results.
What kept Nicole and her children locked into homelessness was increasing competition for private rental properties, the resulting rising rents, and the family’s low income.
Since 2015, private rents in the northern and eastern wards have increased by more than 23 per cent, and Wainuiomata rents by 18 per cent. These parts of the city are home to many families and individuals on low incomes, who are particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
Keri Brown is a Wainuiomata Community Board member with a particular interest in housing and homelessness, and who has advocated for a number of the city’s homeless families.
She says the mothers she’s worked with never dreamt they would become homeless.
“They are traumatised,” she says. “They believe they’ve let their kids down and they’re ashamed. And they’re invisible. You won’t see mothers and their children sleeping on the street, so you can’t see the problem unless you make a great effort.”
She says the fundamental reason single mothers and their children are getting tipped into homelessness is simple economics.
“Just do the maths. A three to four bedroom house can cost more than $400 per week and you then add in childcare, food, power, petrol and all this when you’re on the minimum wage or a benefit.”
All it takes is unexpected health costs, a car needing repairs or a reduction in work hours for these families to miss rent payments and find themselves homeless and with a poor credit rating.
Competition for private rentals in recent years has become tougher as Wellingtonians seek cheaper rents in Lower Hutt, giving landlords the opportunity to cherry pick tenants. This is effectively excluding single, low-income parents from the private rental market, Keri says.
Hutt City Council has researched the extent of homelessness in Lower Hutt and the services available to homeless people and families. In the coming weeks, Council will discuss a strategic approach to homelessness in Lower Hutt, and Council’s role in responding to the problem. To find out more go to huttcity.govt.nz/homelessness.