It’s been a while since I last blogged, and from what I see on the streets of Wellington, New Zealand, the homeless situation has not changed very much at all.
As a part of my journalism training, I was required to set up and maintain a blogsite that researched a subject I was interested in and wanted to know more about. As my course nears its completion, it is now time to review what I have found out.
I began this blog out of a concern for the homeless and a wish to learn whether homelessness was in fact a choice or a condition. I also hoped to confirm a suspicion that the current global financial crisis has been, at least in part, responsible for a rise in the number of the homeless.
I have a background that includes working in a residential addiction rehabilitation centre where it was not uncommon for those seeking treatment to have lived on the streets. So I also wanted to find out about the conditions they faced on the streets and what help is available to homeless people.
I looked at whether homelessness is a matter of choice or a “last resort”, whether the current economic climate has increased homelessness, and also what resources are available to support the homeless.
I also aimed to find out if any gender or age group is more prevalent, and if there were socio-economic indicators.
I extended the range of the research to include other countries, notably the US, but also Malaysia, Australia and the UK.
Despite setting up Google Alerts with key words such as homelessness, the homeless situation, help for the homeless, homeless policy, I initially found it hard to get any information through. Then I was getting the feeds, but not from New Zealand. A session with my tutor, Bernie Whelan, got me started and I was underway.
Initially, most of the information came from the US, and included homeless families, homeless youth and homeless war veterans. What emerged was that, despite a drop in the overall number of homeless, there was an alarming (33%) increase in the number of homeless families.
The drop was largely due to a concentrated effort to rehome homeless veterans by both the US Government and the Veterans Association. However, not all the veterans welcomed the help.
US family advocates are concerned about the rise in homeless families which they attribute to the current financial climate. Despite President Obama’s pledge that “no child would be left behind”, the advocates are seeing more and more families forced to use homeless shelters. They are convinced that Obama will run out of money for his social policies and the most vulnerable will suffer.
The US election saw a drive, especially in New York City, to register the homeless to vote, thus giving them a voice. However, Hurricane Sandy caused the homeless to go to ground, and not get out to vote in the numbers first expected.
A big theme that came through was the vulnerability of the homeless. For example, in 2007 and 2008 the Arizona National Guard deliberately targetted homeless people in Phoenix.
Homeless families are more likely to have other social problems such as child abuse and neglect. But help is available to deal with such issues.
Homeless youth are particularly vulnerable, as they are not living under parental protection, but have no fixed abode, and a limited number of beds available in shelters . In New York City alone there are an estimated 4,000 homeless youths and 250 available beds. The young people tell of having to resort to “survival sex” (ie prostitution) in order to continue to live. They don’t want to do this and would much rather be in a safe place.
Business leaders in the US and Canada leaders slept on the streets to identify with homeless youth and to raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation. I question how successful this was. What is one night compared with a lifestyle?
Other issues facing the homeless were a lack of acceptance and safety, such as being banned from bomb shelters in Israel;being moved because of inner city developmen and being denied acces to soup kitchens because of negative perceptions of the homeless.
In Australia, the homeless situation is high on the political agenda, even though 2001 – 2006 census figures show a decrease in the number of homeless.
In Malaysia, there is an organisation which gives the homeless a two week respite from their situation, but this period can be estended to help them to get back on their feet.
New Zealand shares many of the problems identified with US homelessness, but Auckland’s new Super-City Council has policies in place to solve the problem by 2020. I think they are being overly optimistic, in that any solution will need a multi-agency approach, and the cooperation and trust of the homeless themselves.
One positive initiative in Auckland is the New Beginnings Court which aims to give homeless offenders homes and addiction treatment, before helping them to find employment. The two-year pilot scheme is proving successful, but needs a funding commitment to carry on with helping the clients.
Our Australian neighbours in Queensland have also been helping Kiwis who have become homeless since losing their jobs in Australia. Shelters in Queensland have been providing the homeless with plane tickets home, as they are not eligible for help under the Australian Social Welfare Scheme.
Homelessness in Wellington has markedly increased since the financial downtown, but those on the streets are being treated well.
It’s a different story for those on the streets of Christchurch. One of the homeless has described the dangers and warned other homeless people to be on guard. He says that as a result of the earthquakes, it is now more difficult to get access to the help agencies in the central city.
I enjoyed researching this blog, although the subjest matter was at times really heartbreaking.
Because I wasn’t too confident on how to get my posts into the public eye, I only got a few comments, but what I did get were very insightful and positive. I was invited to join with other bloggers, but found my lack of technical knowledge a barrier. I hope I know more in the future.
I would say the answer to my initial question: is homelessness a choice or a condition is mixed. It has become a choice for people who have nowhere else to go, and in some cases a lifestyle.
But it is also a condition of a society in which the poor are disadvantaged despite some “voices in the wilderness”. I do knowone thing for sure; if I have spare change, and I see a homeless person on the street, I will stop and do what I can. And I like to think that most people would do the same.
Thanks for reading.