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We Asked a Mum What it's Like Becoming Homeless in New Zealand

As a cross-party inquiry into homelessness begins public hearings, we talked about the disturbingly familiar struggle to keep a roof overhead.

by Frances Morton
23 August 2016, 11:05pm

Mayron (second from right) and her children on the day they finally moved into their new home, with two friendly helpers. Image supplied.

Mayron Wihongi got so desperate hunting for an affordable home to rent in Hamilton she thought her only option was to go back to her violent ex-husband. "I'm going to be dead by the end of the year," she told the government agencies that were supposed to be helping her. This seemed to snap them awake and, finally, she got some help.

But the situation is still tough. Mayron and her three kids—aged nine, 11, and 13—now live in the country, far from where she is studying nursing. The kids have to walk for 40 minutes to get to the school bus stop. Still, she says it's better than the month they spent homeless.

It's no secret that homelessness is fast becoming one of New Zealand's biggest problems. People who are living in their cars are advertising for driveways they can rent, families who were loaned money for motels, as a stand in for emergency housing, are finding themselves thousands of dollars in debt to the government. An overheated housing market has forced people already on the margins, like Mayron and her kids, into increasingly hopeless situations.

And it's not just people on benefits struggling to keep a roof above their heads. One in four children in New Zealand, that's 305,000 kids, now live below the poverty line. That's increased by a staggering 45,000 people in just a year. According to the Child Action Poverty Group, 37 percent of these children have two working parents.

So NZ's opposition parties are holding a Homelessness Inquiry to assess the current scale of the problem, and try and work out what can be done. Labour, the Maori Party, and the Greens launched the inquiry after National MPs blocked an attempt to hold one by select committee. Mayron made one of the 400 submissions received so far.

VICE spoke to Mayron about the stigma of being homeless, how she feeds a family on $65 a week, and what the government should be doing.

VICE: Hi Mayron. Can you tell us how you ended up without a home?
Mayron Wihongi: I made the decision to leave my ex-husband who has a head injury. He can get intimidating. I've been in the refuge before. I started losing my hair again and getting stressed. I had to get away and make a change. I thought it would be quite easy to get a house once I had left but it was horrific. I was ringing Housing NZ. I was ringing the refuge. They were full. They couldn't help me. It wasn't until I went in, after being homeless for about three weeks, and said, "If you don't help me I'm going back to my husband and I'm going to be dead by the end of the year" that I got help.

Where were you living at the time?
At my aunt's house. We were living in a little office. Two of my children were sleeping on one single mattress and my son and I were sleeping on the other single mattress. My aunt went overseas. While she was away her son said, "You're trying to bludge off my mother". I had to be out of there by that Friday. It was getting desperate.

What impact did being homeless have on your children?
The two girls got really sick. They couldn't concentrate at school, they were too worried. They didn't want to leave me to go to school. I was having to study and go to lectures as well. It was really hard on us. There were so many tears from the kids. Two of my children suffer from asthma. They were having asthma attacks. They got strep throat as well.

What's your living situation like now?
It's really damp and there are so many rats around. It's a lovely country house but we can't afford it. Now we're living on $65 a week for food. It was the only house that was available to me. I've tried to get a cheaper home, or one closer to town. They won't even look at me because I'm a student and a single mum and a Maori.

How do you feed a family on $65 a week?
I manage by cooking a lot of pasta and rice dishes and luckily my bishop does a shop for us every now and then. I also use the fruit trees around the farm, we have oranges and mandarins in the winter and peaches, plums and nectarines in the summer. I have had people turn up on my doorstep with dinners, shopping, bread, veggies from their gardens and meat. I started a food bank for Wintec nursing students and the families around me all donated to that as well. It has helped a few students in need. Without people like this I don't know what I would do.

Green Party MP Marama Davidson said the Homelessness Inquiry's first public hearing at Te Puea Marae in Auckland was "amazing and heartbreaking". "We need to be accountable and have people confront us face-to-face. This is the first step to ending homelessness," she told VICE. Image via.

What would you like to see happen from the inquiry?
What the Government is doing is just getting the rich richer and they're not taking any responsibility for those who are in need. They're trying to push responsibility onto charities. They give people with their own rental properties a tax benefit but they're not going to hand that on to the people renting. They're just going to pocket it.

I don't know why the Government sold over 3000 Housing NZ homes. There is a definite need. It's created a crisis. Housing NZ homes need to be more accessible for those who are experiencing homelessness. Living in a car or a cramped office is so horrific.

What was the most difficult thing about dealing with the government services?
There was no accountability. They would always try to fob you off or they would just shove it back in my face and say it was my fault.

Do you think the issue is well understood in the wider community?
I think people think people who are homeless have brought it on themselves—that they're just bums and need to get off their backsides and do something, or they're party people who have been thrown out of houses. That is so wrong. I don't drink. I don't smoke, I don't party, but it was like this whole stigma was put on us.

Have you been involved in political causes before?
No. Because I've just come out of violence, my whole mind has been consumed with trying to survive. Now that I've come out of it I've got a lot more ability to focus on other things. That's why I've just started to make a stand.

How are your kids doing?
We were just talking about it last night. They said to me, "You're so much happier away from violence and doing nursing". They're trying to understand that we don't have a lot. It's a lot of sacrifice on their part, with having to walk so far in the morning in the freezing cold and the rain. We've just got to get through it.

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