Mana Wāhine: the Invisible Homeless Mothers of New Zealand
How New Zealand’s housing crisis is forcing solo mothers and domestic violence victims onto the streets.
Photos: Naomi Haussmann
It's a miserable Christchurch day, with just a few lunch-break workers sheltering with cigarettes under the awning. Tequilla is at the hangi house in Aranui, sandwiched off the road behind Big Gary's Fish n Chips and a self-service laundromat.
Here you can have fried bread with your tea, raw fish in thick coconut cream, boilup or a hangi for ten bucks. The windows are opaque with steam. Napkins folded into diamonds, stacks of white bread with butter and Best Foods mayo.
"Act now!" someone has written in red marker on the fridge. "One step in the right direction is better than 10 years thinking about it." Then, below it: "Be grateful for what you have and what you don't have."
Tequilla splits open the string-bound foil package and it releases a sweet, aromatic mushroom-cloud of steam: chicken, pork, fragrant pumpkin and cabbage melting into stuffing. She and her children have been homeless for almost a year.
They moved up from Invercargill last year, when her former partner faced a court case on sexual assault charges. Tequilla uplifted her young family and got out.
"Invercargill's so small. I didn't want to be in the same town as him," she says.
Originally from Christchurch, she decided to move back home to be closer to her family, bringing her five children aged between four and 10 with her.
For the first few months they stayed with family, bunking in with her sister and partner in their home. She'd sleep on a mattress on the floor with her youngest, the rest of the kids crammed in the double bed. But with eight people in a three-bedroom house, tensions started running high. Her sister was working a night shift, and it's hard keeping five kids quiet in the morning rush. She moved in with her parents, but again, the shift from two to eight people in a single house put too much pressure on the relationship. They started fighting.
"It just wasn't good with the kids," she says.
With options ticking down, she hit the social services. "The first place I rang was the YWCA. They couldn't house us, because all their family rooms were all full. Then I went to WINZ, and they put me on a waiting list. Told me to try the City Mission." And that's where she is now—staying in the mission's emergency housing, sitting on a Housing New Zealand waiting list. Her time at the mission will be up in four weeks—it's strictly temporary—and beyond that lies a big question mark: maybe another lounge floor, a friend's spare room, a van?
"I don't know. I don't know what the next step is yet," she says.
This is what researchers call category two homelessness: families who drift from house to house, couch surfing, living in tents and caravans, garages and short-term, emergency respite homes. They're not on the streets—yet.
While the traditional picture of homelessness is the grizzled street sleeper, in reality many of New Zealand's homeless community are women like Tequilla—single parents scrambling to keep up routines, pack school lunches, maintain a facade of normalcy as the options, one by one, begin to tick down.
Over the past three censuses in New Zealand, half of those experiencing extreme housing deprivation were women. Last census, the largest "family status" category of homelessness in New Zealand was single parents with dependent children who made up 43 percent of those without homes. Parents with children overall made up 53 percent. In total, 21,797 children and their parents were in "severe housing deprivation" on census day in 2013, up from 15,085 in 2006. Singles, comparatively, make up less than a quarter of the total homeless or housing-deprived population.
So while the traditional picture of homelessness is the grizzled street sleeper, in reality many of New Zealand's homeless community are women like Tequilla—single parents scrambling to keep up routines, pack school lunches, maintain a facade of normalcy as the options, one by one, begin to tick down.
"Women in New Zealand are absolutely at the sharp end of homelessness," Jackie Clark says.
Her gruff voice and easy laugh hums down the line from a fuzzy speakerphone in her car. She talks as she drives: on her way back from delivering a "a fuckload of undies" to a support house for women with postnatal depression.
Jackie is one of the Aunties, a network of women who act as a donations distribution network for New Zealand women's refuges. It started small. Jackie used to work as a teacher, and got in touch with one of the refuges to donate some clothing. When she learned about other needs the women had, she began using her social media networks to solicit donations to meet specific needs of female victims of domestic violence. Today, Jackie does this full time, and she's a force to be reckoned with, a kind profanity-loving social media fairy godmother, trawling Twitter for generosity.
A typical tweet might read, "I need yr clothes. All sizes. Warm. Casual. Freshly washed + in good nick. Winter only pls - no tshirts eg or shorts. Pls RT. AKL only." And people come through, she says—something about the directness of the needs presented and the simplicity of person-to-person giving taps into people's generosity.
One need social media callouts can't always meet, however, is housing. The women she works with live right at the intersection of domestic violence, a growing housing crisis and poverty.
"And I don't say that word lightly," she says. "I deal with people living in abject poverty. These women often have nothing."
Many are unable to leave abusive relationships because there are so few housing options available. Often, when women leave domestic violence situations or abusive relationships, it's the men who keep the house—even if the women had been on the lease, or even had a mortgage on the property.
"I've had one woman who's been living at the refuge for a year because her husband won't get out of her house," she says.
"When they leave, it's not just the relationship they leave behind. They're leaving everything."
When women do choose to leave, if they're in a Housing New Zealand property, they're taken off the lease, and have to re-enter the waiting list from the bottom. Even for women who are considered top priority—those who face an immediate threat to their physical safety—will be spending weeks on the waiting list. The fastest wait time she's seen recently was six weeks, but most are more in the realm of six months.
In the private rental market, she says, things are more difficult still. Single mums are close to the bottom rung of preferred tenants: they tend to have fixed incomes, high costs, many have few or no references, and may struggle to meet the traditional four weeks' bond plus letting fee.
"When they leave, it's not just the relationship they leave behind," she says. "They're leaving everything."
"Letting agents are ruthless: they look at a solo mum on a benefit, and they think 'she won't make rent.'"
"Our job as property managers is really to find people who look like they're reliable and will pay the rent, so we're measuring people on their merits," says Sam Coutts, of Chase Property Management. That means looking at income histories, references, and trawling the net for any record of their behaviour in past properties.
A single mum who had previously been living with family and didn't have any references, would be facing a "massive disadvantage".
If they find out that someone's had a past situation where they didn't make rent, or the property was damaged, they would be "absolutely stuffed," he says.
"It is competitive now, especially in Auckland. If we have 10 people interested in a property, and three are really strong applications…. It just puts them lower down the list."
He doesn't want property managers demonised, he says. They're there to do their jobs, protect the interests of landlords. He recommends renters getting to the early property viewings, making sure your references are tight—even trying to find a guarantor, if you can. "You need to have all your ducks in a row."
But the current system leaves no room for a past mistake, a lack of referees, or even the appearance of risk. If you're a young mum like Tequilla, that presents obvious challenges.
"You know, there really does need to be a way for people to get a foot in the door," Coutts says. "Because at the moment, that's not easy."
Tequilla has been looking at private rentals, but she never gets picked for one, she says.
"A lot of private rental people don't like single mums—and look at me, I've got a lot of kids. It's so hard to get a decent house for a lot of kids." She doesn't want a damp home: her daughter already has chronic asthma, and has been hospitalised twice for her breathing over the last two winters. She's developed a low, harsh, hacking smoker's cough, and coughs constantly, all winter long. "If one gets sick they're all gonna get sick," Tequilla says,.
She drives in the rain to her home for the next four weeks: emergency accommodation, provided by the City Mission. It's just across from the Mission's new complex, and on most days there are men lined up waiting, or sitting on the street outside drinking.
"Some are alright," Tequilla says, "but some are drunk. The kids don't go outside when we're here, they just come straight in."
The house is sparse. No pictures on the walls, no knick knacks, no furniture in the lounge but two green couches, and a tv with a small wallet of dvds: Shrek, Robots, Jumanji, The Tigger Movie. There's a dining table with a fruit bowl and one banana. In the corner is a small pink doll's house and toy pram with two dolls crammed side by side. Through a door to the bedroom there are bunk beds, a leopard print blanket, a stuffed pink unicorn.
The house is quiet: all five kids are at school or preschool.
In the kitchen there's some chicken defrosting for dinner, a jumbo pack of Weetbix on the fridge. Sometimes it's hard to make ends meet, Tequilla says, especially with rising food costs. The price of food in New Zealand rose 2.3 percent in the last year—the biggest rise since 2010. Vegetable prices were up 12 percent. That's tough for a large family on a fixed, single-breadwinner income. "They eat a lot!" she laughs. "School lunches and stuff. But it's alright, you just make do."
Tequilla is lucky to have found a spot here—there are very few shelters around New Zealand that cater to women with children. Paula Lloyd is the manager of Wellington Homeless Women's Trust, one of the few services in the country that provides temporary accommodation to homeless women. Almost all of New Zealand's night shelters are male-only. Both here and in her 30 years working internationally on homelessness, the housing services available are "always skewed towards men," she says.
"It's much more deviant for a woman to be homeless than it is for a man, and we still carry that [stigma] around—so in the planning and in the funding, women are generally overlooked."
"People actually think that women can't be homeless, you don't see them on the street very often, and there's a really good reason for that—it's just not safe."
Women will be "going to great lengths" to keep up appearances, and keep out of view, she says. "They're still homeless, they're just not street homeless necessarily. But they're putting themselves in a lot of other dangerous situations just to stay off the streets." It's common for women to be forced to stay in unhealthy relationships, she says, because leaving means losing the home.
"I've just had another one this week, a young women who had been sleeping in her car because her male partner had just been given a custodial sentence, so quite a lot of time the tenancies are under the man's name."
The Homeless Women's Trust has a five room apartment, and is usually full. And while they're one of the few who take women at all, the shelter doesn't take women with children—the risks are too high. She says while homelessness generally seems to be on the rise, the biggest shift could be among women with kids, pushed out by rent pressures.
"There has been a massive rise in the working poor, and not affording those rents anymore.
"I would say yes, there probably is quite a significant rise in women being homeless, but they would possibly be the women that have got children."
Most of all, Tequilla worries about the impact this could have on her children.
"They hate it," she says.
"Moving places, chopping and changing, it's going to affect any kid. It's not fair on them, but I have to do what I have to do really. It was a dramatic move moving back here. I got up one morning and told them right, we're moving back to Christchurch."
She began to notice behavioural issues, especially for her 5 year old girl, when they didn't have a place of their own. "She couldn't understand why we had to keep moving. It just wasn't fair on them. They can't cope without routine.," she says.
"I noticed the change in them when we moved from my sister's into this place, which is a three bedroom unit. Now they have their own space. I think once we have our own place and we're actually stable again, it'll be good.
At the moment she's just dropped out of studying social work. She took it up because she wanted to help other people who have had a difficult path. But as the year tracked on, it all got a little too close to home.
"When I first signed up, I thought I could push all my problems aside and just focus on the studying. But everything we studied was just related to everything that was going on. It was just too much for me to take, with the court case coming up. But I'll go back next year."
For now, her biggest focus is to find a home. She's trying not to think about what happens when the next four weeks are up, if Housing New Zealand doesn't have a place.
"I try not to let it affect me because I get bad anxiety. I don't want to let it kick in. As long as I keep trying to look for private rentals…" she trails off.
"We'll get something."
Photos Naomi Haussmann
Follow Tess on Twitter @tessairini