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: