Welcome to Aotearoa: where our most vulnerable youths are being left behind

I was walking downtown in Auckland City, a few weeks back and I heard someone call  over to me – “Nice boots!”  I looked over and saw a young guy wrapped up in a dirty blanket staring down at my Doc Martens with a big grin on his face. I walked over to him and plonked myself down, rummaged through my bag for some change and in between my apologies that I had so little to give, we got talking.

He told me his name was Oliver, he was 17, and had been on the streets for just over a year now. I asked Oliver how he got here as I pointed at the pavement. He said, “My mum died and she had debt, obviously I could not pay it back so the bank took everything but my bed. I couldn’t lug that around, so I just left it.”

Oliver told me he gets beaten up in the shelters so just stays out in the open and he has been unable to access any governmental assistance since he became homeless. I wanted to tell this young guy that “it gets better”. I wanted to make promises to him that soon shit will not be so awful and unfair. But I know this is a brutal lie to tell him. I know I would be engaging in neoliberal myth-making – selling him what the journalist Laurie Penny calls “a desperate fairy-tale ”.

Instead, I say, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry this has happened to you. This world is unfair and shit, and so many of our politicians do not care about young people like you, because they are selfish and short-sighted and I’m just … so very sorry.”

He looked at me and he raised his dirt covered hand and Oliver said, “High fucking five to that.”

I promised Oliver I’d take him for a coffee next time I saw him and I added him on Facebook so I could get hold of him (he told me his phone was stolen the first night he was on the streets, so Facebook would have to do). I wish I could have promised him more than just a measly cup of coffee: I wish I could have promised Oliver he would, at the very least, have a fair shot at life.

But I know this is untrue. I know the longer you stay in poverty the harder it is to get out of it. I know the best way to drag yourself out of poverty is through education. But our current National Government has made it harder and harder for people from low-income families (and Oliver does not even have a family for support) to access higher education through the slashing of student allowances. Even if he made it to university, Oliver would exit from whatever degree he got into a flooded job market. Like so many highly-skilled graduates, he would be forced to take any work, no matter how awful and underpaid, to support himself and pay back staggering student loan debt, while trying to meet the demands of unregulated rental prices which have risen by 10% in Auckland since last year as the NZ Herald reported earlier this year

I wanted to promise Oliver he would not be blamed and made to feel solely responsible for his situation; for living in poverty and having no home, no place to go. But I knew this would be a lie, too.

Shortly after talking to Oliver, I had to jump on a train and get to work. I told my baby-boomer boss, Bob, who made his millions in the  deep south of the States  drilling for oil (and who pays me a whopping 25 cents over minimum wage to bust tables at his restaurant) about this young man when I got to work.

I knew what his response would be. I nearly always know what people will say when I speak about poverty and homelessness. He simply told me: “When I was young I took any job whether it was picking fruit or shovelling shit at the stables.” Yeah, he really used the ‘I shovelled shit’ line. I’m surprised he didn’t say he also travelled 100 miles in the snow to get there.

Bob told me he had little sympathy for street kids because: “They could be doing more to get themselves off the streets. They couldn’t rely on welfare hand-outs and the state.” Why is it that so many seem to also think compassion and empathy are some kind of ‘hand-out’ that people who are struggling economically do not deserve?

From Bob’s privileged perspective, precious tamariki who end up on the streets for whatever heartbreaking and tragic reasons just need to ‘suck it up’ and pull their socks up (if they own any) and beg for work – as if ‘begging’ for work is an indignity homeless youths deserve.

I tried to point out it would be incredibly hard for Oliver, who had no clean clothes, no reliable access to a shower and who visibly looks like he has been sleeping rough, to find any work, even the depressing and exploitive work that seems to be the only kind on offer to so many young people struggling to survive in Aotearoa.

My boss simply shrugged me off. What would I know anyway?

I asked one final question: “Well then, would you hire him?”

My boss fell quiet, looked contemplative for a moment and then said, “He wouldn’t have the experience.”

Because busting tables is fucking rocket science?

Bob, whose conscience seems to have suffered a terminal malfunction, believes the myth that homelessness is some kind of lifestyle choice. Maybe my boss, like millions of others, just cannot imagine what it might be like for a homeless young person who is alone on the streets with no family to turn to and a government which is apathetic to the needs of its most vulnerable? I have to believe this, because the alternative is more depressing – that they just do not care.

As Kathryn Doughty, who is Youthline’s Auckland Central Centre Manager points out, “Deciding to leave home with nowhere to go is never a decision made lightly – commonly, financial obstacles and a history of abuse or instability make independent living extremely difficult.”

Last week the Guardian ran a powerful piece on the growing political and cultural issue of homelessness in New York city. Lauren Sandler wrote:

Too many people exist under the assumption that there’s a place for these people, a mechanism to care for them, but usually there isn’t. The state doesn’t engage with them as much as it must – and most New Yorkers don’t either, remaining not just passive in the face of need, but actively shutting it out.

This statement easily holds true for Auckland City. Daily, I see people walk past the homeless in Auckland’s CBD, barely giving them a thoughtful glance, let alone any spare change. Like climate change, the enormity of the human issue of homelessness, which is devastatingly visible all around us if we only use our peripheral vision, is often so overwhelming people would rather ignore it. Or better yet, instead of recognising (oppressive) structural factors contributing to homelessness, we blame the individual for their own hardship.

When I spoke to a social worker named Amanda*, who works for CYF (Child, Youth and Family) about youth homelessness and why so many young people are ending up on our streets, she told me:

“The government’s policy on ‘transition to youth’ only heightens youth homelessness; when a child turns 17 CYF legally have no responsibility for them, which is far too young. Quite often these children have no family to ‘transition’ to. So they end up living on the streets, in jail or in gangs … the New Zealand Government should be responsible for children in care till they are 20. Especially, because so many of them function well below their actual age.”

More than half of Aotearoa’s homeless are under the age of 25 and governmental policies are not only perpetuating youth homelessness, they are making it worse. When I asked Amanda if it is frustrating for her to come up against government policies restricting her capacity to help young people at risk, she said, “As a social worker I feel powerless. As a human being and a role model to my young I feel responsible. We set up our youth to fail and then wonder what we could have done earlier… when it is too late.”

Rather than homelessness, what needs to be judged and shamed harshly by wider society is the lack of compassion and empathy that so many people show when they talk about and react to those who are homeless and struggling to survive. Instead, on the whole, most people who engage in ignorant poverty-shaming rhetoric (which perpetuates myths and harmful beliefs around homelessness) get away with it, consequence free.

We need far fewer people like Bob, who kind of sounds like a sociopath, who seems to believe people who are struggling economically deserve every ounce of suffering and pain they get, and more people like Amanda, who commit to feeling something other than just disdain and doing something other than just laying blame. We need compassion and empathy – both from our citizens, and from our government. The people who need to be held to account are not usually our homeless, but the people who created the policies that put them there.

*This name has been changed to protect the indentity of this person

Update: The NZ Herald reported on the 10 of June that CYFS is now under review and the National government is considering raising the age that youths are released from the foster care system. You can read the article here. But as Labour MP Jacinda Ardern pointed out on her FB page in regards to National’s review:

“Pleased to see the Minister agrees, but I’ve also seen National vote against our attempts to change this law more than once.”

Jacinda has also started a petition to raise the age of child protection services from 17 to 18, you can sign here:

http://action.labour.org.nz/child-protection


25 thoughts on “Welcome to Aotearoa: where our most vulnerable youths are being left behind

  1. Follow through. Let him see people can be trusted to support and assist others. Get in quick before he starts to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. Link him into helping agencies who can broker all the services he needs right now. Everyone in life needs that someone who leads them onto another path or at least, gives them the opportunity. Be quietly proud that you do the right thing by another human being down on their luck. It may be you one of these days and you’d want someone prepared to reach out too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think “that someone” is important, just showing care and compassion is a radical act in a capitialist neolib country that champions the rise of the individual over the collective. But also, I think it is important we have massive safty nets for people who just luck out or who werent born into privilege?

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  2. The situation is worsening and what makes me mad is the ignorance of people who see them and look at them with disdain as if they chose this life for themselves, I would gladly take them home as someplace to sleep in the night, my home is not big or great to look at but it is a home for anyone in need or want to rest for a while, this govt is just adding fuel to the fire, you cant turn anywhere for help with restrictions and ignorance running rampant in this govt and the policies they enforce now make it harder for our teens to get a leg up or to even help themselves, I cry for the future generations who we are now going to leave with a massive debt and no subsidies or assistance to even close the gap between the rich and the poor.
    What has NZ got to offer our young when right this minute we are degrading them and ignoring their needs? we offer jobs to overseas people and let our young forage for whats left over, hell might as well go bush and live like our ancestors then start again !!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there has been a massive defrauding of our youths. So many young people ar being left behind, and they are blamed for it. When it is our politicians who have so much to answer for…

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    2. Because if they acknowledge the problem, they will also have to take a fair of the responsibility, directly or indirectly. Which in turn may result in one less holiday a year or $50 less spending on liquor every weekend. They would rather kill the homeless and get it over with.

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  3. That was either very brave Chloe or very foolish. Brave it was. You almost literally stepped into his shoes, showed empathy and started to change his life. You also put your job on the line if you really did have that chat with Bossman. But that too was putting your mouth where your heart is. The reverse of walking the talk so to speak, it was talking the walk. Kia kaha and keep on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kia ora Michael, yes my bossman does really exist, feel free to boycot the resturant it is called ‘Hog Heaven’ in newmarket. The guy who runs it helped to destroy the planet (cos thats what drilling for oil does) and still thinks it’s totally cool to put down those living in poverty. I really wouldnt want to take any credit for changing any persons life who is living rough, just because I showed them a bit of understanding and empathy. I believe it takes far more than this to really have a real impact, but its a start and its better than engaging in horrible poverty shaming rhetoric which, Im sure makes the person engaging in it feel superior, but makes the person it is directed at feel like epic shit.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for such a moving and thought-provoking article. It needs sharing far and wide and I’ll do my best to try and see that this issue isn’t swept under the carpet!

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  5. When I moved to Scotland, where homelessness is a huge problem, in 1997 from New Zealand I had literally never seen people trying to survive living on the streets before. There was one homeless man who often took shelter in the bushes around Auckland City Library where I worked – but he seemed to prefer that life and was known about town as a character. There were what we called “street kids” – and this was a social problem, but not one of ongoing endemic poverty leaving people with literally no resources, sleeping rough long-term. I was actually traumatised to arrive in such a cold place and see folk begging on the streets, trying to stay warm in freezing cold weather with nowhere to go. It shook me to my core, it was so unfamiliar to me. Now – New Zealand is just the same, the only real difference being that Aucklanders generally don’t have to cope with icy pavements and snow in the winter. Cry, the beloved country, indeed. Thank you for doing something to keep people’s attention on this. New Zealand needs a revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, homelessness has grown since 2008, since National took power, and one area of real growth is youth homelessness. This is a country of haves and have nots now. Where social nets are being gutted and austerity measures have hit the political underclass so hard and so badly. It is hard to see so many struggling, and of course what compunds matters are peoples awful attitudes, that rarely take into accoutn the structures that oppress people. It makes me mad. I feel very passionatly about writing from a gass-roots perspective, and I think words can be transformative, but only so far. We need to transform policies so they are inclusive. X)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It is much the same here in the UK. They are also many hidden homeless who move from sofa to sofa or even shed to shed. these young people often fail at school, how can you really study effectively when you don’t even know where you will be sleeping from night to night, have no where to keep your stuff and no encouragement or support? They are often unable to access any form of financial help because of lack of access to computers, internet and mobile phones. Things most people take for granted and which these days are needed to “sign on”, you have to access the forms electronically and get your appointments by text. Often the job centre have no response for people who can’t get online. they will say go to the library, but the 1/2 hour slot you are allocated is not enough time to fill the form, and it most likely takes 1/2 an hour just to access it in the beginning. Sometimes they will let somebody come to the jobcentre to use a computer which is slow over subscribed and more often than not crashed. This whole system is clearly setting up vulnerable young people to fail and then to blame them when they give up and “self medicate” it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
    I live literally on the edge of disaster every month, I work a minimum wage job for a company which refuses to give me the hours I need to live on {it is not company policy to employ customer service assistants full time} even though they need people to fill the hours and they know I am a good worker. Their hiring policy is based on people receiving government top ups for low wages, but I don’t qualify for the living supplement {Working Tax Credit} because my children are grown up and they assume I can work full time. I have literally begged my manager for the extra hours…he won’t budge and I have yet to see a retail or service job which does not work by the same “business model” the consequence is I earn just enough to pay the bills and a portion of the rent but not enough to eat or anything else. I am in an unsustainable position and can only see homelessness as the finale consequence or maybe prison because I have being forced by circumstances to do something illegal. I am by no means the only person in this position…. did I hear the phrases “trickle down economics”, “wealth creators” , no it was just raucous laughing as they run off with the silver again.
    On a more positive note I did see in a Manchester suburb 3 young homeless men who were not abused and ignored by the community around them, rather people take time to talk to them, feed them and generally treat them with respect and dignity. This is not the common response but it was nice to see a little pocket of humanity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kia ora,

      I understand your position and how hard it is. I often am working 2 jobs at min wage in the hospo industry. My hours are insecure, I have almost no rights, Unions have helped me in the past. But ultimatly I have a staggering student debt, moved out of home at 17 but at 27 I moved back because the rising rental prices in Auckland are just not afforable. Im lucky though, obviously my mum who is a sole parent has been supprotive and allowed me to come home, I pay board and buy my own food ect. But have very little left to pay back my credit card and other bills. But I’d be pretty homeless without the support of family. So often those who are lucky enough to have landed an ok job with fulltime hours straight from uni can have some of the worst attitudes to anyone on welfare or struggling. I think it is important we stand up to these attitudes and hold people to account. Sure they often dont listen but perhaps it gives them pause?

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  7. In about 2013 when I was still living in an apartment in Central Auckland my partner and I walked past a young girl curled under a blanket in a doorway, we were on our way somewhere. When we returned she’d gone or so we thought, but she had just moved to another doorway further down Queens Street. We stopped and talked to her, overtime we learned that she came from a hard background one that would have seen the strongest of us struggle. We asked her if she wanted to just come and have a shower and some food. She said she’d have to ask her boyfriend, so both of them came home with us, had showers and food, clean clothes (although they were far too big) and then went back to the street.
    This started a relationship with the two young people that lasted even when we shifted to Hamilton. They came and stayed with us a couple of times, the last time they came together and left separately. I dropped this beautiful young woman off where she met her Aunty and her boyfriend went back to Auckland. Sadly I’ve never heard from either of them again, but they are very often in my thoughts. They had tragedies in their lives before they ended up on the streets, and some mental illness at least for the young man. But they needed support and perhaps just perhaps the little we did was enough to help one of them at least.
    I am middle aged, I have a good education, but I did not know how to respond to the young and homeless, in this case I simply reached out with a mother’s heart, and my life was richer for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think so often the stories that matter the most our the ones which gounheard. i feel as a writer it is so important to “go where the silence is”, as Amy Goodman wrote. So many people who are living rough and struggle more than deserv to have their voices heard, and governments all over the world would rather the political underclass simply be forgotten. It was so awesome you took time out to hear the story of that young girl who was homeless. Kindness is such a radical act given our current economic climate. X) ❤

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  8. Thank you for sitting with him and listening. Being heard and “seen” is often the biggest gift. The opposite of suffering is loving connection.

    I am interested in responsibility. I sometimes think it’s the “government’s responsibility”, then I think maybe it’s the “community”, finally I keep coming back to “what the hell am I doing about it?”
    I am responsible for creating the world I want to be part of.
    Do I look after just myself, just my family?
    How far out does my care and compassion go?
    I donate to charity, I do charity work, I own a small business and pay my staff above the average wage for their roles and I aim to be the highest paying person in my industry, I pay my staff who have children more, when its quiet season I keep my staff employed and don’t pay myself, my staff and I take “waste” to charity.

    I am white, rich, privileged, and I need to take responsibility for creating a more caring and compassionate world.
    I know that I can get off my arse and do a hell of a lot more because I am so fortunate and so many are suffering

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: I Give Up
  10. hi there, just wondering if anyone knows where this boy is exactly? We would like to take him in & help him out, can someone reply & we can pick him asap 🙂
    Thank you.

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  11. Are things really THAT bad in New Zealand? It’s consistently ranked among the “happiest” countries in the world with one of the best welfare systems (healthcare, education, unemployment etc.) I’m an Indian who has been considering moving to New Zealand. And honestly, compared to my country, New Zealand seems pretty damn amazing.

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      1. Wow. I wasn’t aware National ended universal benefits. That is sad to hear and I do hope things get better soon. This is a great blog you’ve got here by the way. Your analyses of the problems inherent in our economic system are spot on.

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  12. Hey Chloe,
    First change yourself, then change the world.
    Yeah, irony right? (everyone is sick of feelgood platitudes, etc) but it is a real shame to see someone with so much potential and passion struggling.
    I know you and I have a lot of respect for someone who speaks out strongly when something is wrong.
    I am certainly not criticising or insulting you, but being frank, just saying what I see. Many people will read journalists writing and say “Oh, yeah, that’s bad. We need to change things”, but once the next thing hits their ears or eyes, they are on their way down the road. It’s just the truth about how many people behave. You know also, there is nothing new under the sun. (Sorry to quote the flaky, abused religious text here, but in this case, it is true). Poverty is something that, in an ideal world, can be solved – but we are not in an ideal world.
    Exposing the problem is one way of working on it, but taking action is more effective. Obviously, there is an inherent problem in ‘helping’ some people, as they are often not really ready to help themselves.
    There is a line between having a whole lot of ‘boat-anchors’ tied to you, and becoming the lifeboat that rows out to save people from the wild empty ocean. If you can inspire anyone to be like that lifeboat (and I hope you have), then you have done much good.

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