Homelessness: Not a simple choice

Ever wondered what it would be like to sleep rough on the street in the middle of winter – with nothing but the clothes on your back, a sleeping bag and a slab of cardboard? Some of New Zealand’s most influential leaders are about to find out – including Good’s digital editor Natalie – all for an amazing cause. Hannah McClean delves deeper into New Zealand’s homelessness issue 

Participants from last year’s Big Sleepout receiving a meal from Lifewise volunteers  

Some of New Zealand’s most influential leaders will be sleeping rough in Auckland’s CBD this Thursday at Lifewise’s annual Big Sleepout. Stripped of their creature comforts and exposed to the winter elements, business and community leaders, politicians and change-makers will spend a night on cold concrete, receiving an insight into what it means to sleep rough. Each will be sponsored by family, friends, and colleagues – raising the vital funds that are needed to get vulnerable homeless people off the street and into homes.

As well as raising funds, the event aims to improve understanding around the issue of homelessness and deconstruct common misconceptions. For some, homelessness is an unsightly intrusion on their daily wanderings, for others, it’s a source of compassionate curiosity, but for a growing number of New Zealanders, homelessness is a cold, hard reality.

Rika was 14 years old when she “chose” to leave home. She’d been sent to live with her father after her parent’s split, but home life was not as it used to be. She felt unwanted by her mother, and when her father became hostile, Rika packed up and left. When there were no couches to crash on or cars to sleep in, Rika would spend her nights at the Symonds Street graveyard, scared and alone.

This year, more than 100 Auckland leaders will be sleeping rough, with a joint fundraising target of $200,000.

“Picture all the things in your life which make you feel secure; your family, your house, your job, your material belongings… Now try to imagine life without those necessities. It’s almost impossible to move forward in life without a safe base to come back to,” says Rika.  

Determined to make something of herself, she enrolled in a certificate in painting. She’d wear the same outfit everyday and when she needed a safe place to sleep, she’d break into the student lounge at night. Despite her willpower, the struggles of life on the streets hindered Rika’s ability to study. With nowhere to do her homework and constant hunger making it hard to concentrate, she dropped out just weeks before she was due to graduate.

With no money and no shelter, Rika saw stripping as her only chance. “It was extremely challenging,” she says. “There were times when customers crossed boundaries, but I felt like I couldn’t ask for legal assistance because I had put myself in that situation. There’s also heavy drug use in the industry, which is hard to avoid. It put me in serious danger a number of times.’

Rika credits Lifewise with giving her the opportunities she needed to get the possible start in life for her son. She has been able to work through the reasons that let her to be homeless, and she now has safety, security, and peace in her family.​ Michelle Hepburn Photography

Whether a street-dweller’s demand for dignity, or an onlooker’s denial of responsibility, choice is a familiar concept in the discussion of homelessness. When your experience of home has been nothing but safety and security, it’s hard to grasp why anyone would choose such a way of life. But stories like Rika’s point out the complexities of choice. Lifewise, the non-profit social development agency conducting this week’s Big Sleepout, believes anyone could potentially become homeless after just three life-changing events.

 “A spouse or partner dies, a job is lost and a rental agreement is axed, and even the most responsible and well-prepared individual can find themselves on the streets,” says Lifewise’s general manager Moira Lawler.

A street count in October 2014 found 147 people sleeping rough within a 3km radius of the Sky Tower – a figure up 116% from a count of 68 in 2013. Street living, also known as rough sleeping, is the most extreme form of homelessness and its sharp rise is a gauge of a much larger issue. As housing in Auckland becomes increasingly unaffordable, 5000 people are waiting for social housing and 15,000 are severely housing deprived. Nationwide, around 30,000 New Zealanders are severely housing deprived, with almost half being under the age of 25.

For a long time Rika was reluctant to ask for help. After being shut down time and time again, relying on others became a frightening concept. It wasn’t until she found she was pregnant that her desperation outweighed her fear and she built up the courage to talk to someone from Lifewise. “I heard about Lifewise through other homeless people, and a woman who lived in the state house where I was couch surfing when I found out I was pregnant,” she says. “She looked after a lot of street workers and convinced my friend (now fiancé) to take me to talk to the Lifewise team and get me the proper help I needed for myself and my baby. I’d been to Merge Café before, but it wasn’t until I had someone I trusted to come with me that I had the confidence to reach out.”

Nationwide, around 30,000 New Zealanders are severely housing deprived, with almost half being under the age of 25.

Lifewise is a non-profit social development agency, working to provide wrap-around care services to vulnerable and at-risk people like Rika. Moira says Lifewise has changed its approach to homelessness in recent years, aiming to give people the support they need to turn their lives around for good, rather than just a quick fix.  

“We had a sense of disquiet that by simply feeding people, we may have been inadvertently contributing to the problem. The solution to ending homelessness is simple really – what do homeless people really need? A home. Since the soup kitchen’s closure in 2007, Lifewise has focused our efforts on getting homeless people off the streets and into permanent homes,” she says.  

“There’s a big misconception that homelessness is a choice, but when you are actually talking to people, it’s a very different story. People are homeless because they’ve completely run out of options. It’s not really a ‘choice’ when it’s a women who has fled domestic abuse, or a young person who has decided to take their chances on the streets because their home-life is unsafe or unstable.”

Since 2010, the Lifewise Big Sleepout has raised over $690,000.00 toward tackling homelessness, with hundreds of business and community leaders, politicians and change-makers attending.

“The impact the Lifewise Big Sleepout has on those who take up the challenge to sleep rough for one night continues to astound us,” says Moira. “Talking to people who have experienced homelessness and are now stably housed thanks to Lifewise, helps participants see the issue differently. It gets them talking about how business, government and the community sector must work together to solve this issue.”

This year, more than 100 Auckland leaders will be sleeping rough, with a joint fundraising target of $200,000. With a view to creating a nationwide event, 2015 is the first year that has seen the event expand to areas beyond Auckland, with a Big Sleepout also being held on the same night in Rotorua.

Homelessness is a complex issue, but there are some simple ways you can make a difference.

  1. Show respect. There are many reasons why someone might be homeless; losing a job, divorce, illness, addiction, unaffordable housing – things that could happen to anyone. Hold your judgments and say hello, it could make someone’s day. You could even tell them about Lifewise or other services available to them.
  2. Volunteer. Lifewise is always grateful to have an extra pair of hands. Think about how you could invest your time in helping our team or perhaps offering your professional skills in some way.
  3. Donate. Donations to Lifewise ensure that the team can provide the specialist support people need to get off the streets.
  4. Eat at Merge Café. Lifewise encourages Aucklanders of all ages to come together over a meal at Merge Café, 453 Karangahape Road. Because Merge Café is a social enterprise, every dollar goes towards housing homeless people.
  5. Discuss. Homelessness is a complex issue which people will have differing opinions on. Engage others in conversation and consider the reasons why people can become homeless. The more people who are aware of the issues involved, the better our ability to make a difference.

To donate to Good‘s Natalie Cyra’s Big Sleepout page – click here 






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