'This isn't my sob story - I'm lucky'

STRUGGLE STREET: Byllie-Jean Rangihuna and her children Neza, 12, Jireh, 16 and Awatea, 7.
STRUGGLE STREET: Byllie-Jean Rangihuna and her children Neza, 12, Jireh, 16 and Awatea, 7.

Byllie-Jean Rangihuna never expected to be homeless.

But after six months in a leaky caravan and applying for more than 100 tenancies, the mother of three says Canterbury's rental market is denying single-parent families the chance of a home.

Last year, Rangihuna and her children Awatea, 7, Neza, 12, and Jireh, 16, were settled in the New Brighton home they had lived in for the past two years.

When the lease rolled around they were given notice, and two weeks later the home was back on the market. Originally rented for $300, her rent had gone up to $350. It went back on the market at $400 - rising more than 30 per cent in six months.

After applying for a dozen houses unsuccessfully, she hired a caravan to buy time - but Rangihuna and her family have now been living in the caravan on her brother's Papanui property for six months.

She's lost count of houses she's applied for, but says it's been more than 100.

Rangihuna has done her best to make the caravan homely, with schoolwork spread over the tiny formica table and a pink ballerina bedspread on the neatly-made bed.

But the facade of normality quickly wears thin. The caravan windows have broken seals and won't shut. Her children have chesty coughs that won't go away. They've just got rid of scabies from overcrowding.

When The Press visits at 6pm, condensation is already forming on the ceiling. All night, Rangihuna says, it drips onto their beds.

There appear to be no obvious reasons for Rangihuna to be without a permanent home. Her credit history is clear. She has no outstanding debts. She has never missed a rent payment, and a family member acts as a rent guarantor. The tenancy tribunal has no record of any complaints. She has no addiction issues, and no criminal history or convictions.

But Rangihuna is part of what agencies say is one of the most vulnerable, fastest growing demographics of Christchurch homeless - single parent families.

In November last year, a University of Otago study found half of all New Zealand's "severely deprived" homeless population were female, and 38 per cent were solo parent families with dependent children under 15.

Solo-parent families with children were more likely to be homeless than single childless adults.

Overall, there are an estimated 17,000 homeless women, and 8500 homeless children nationally.

At many rental viewings, Rangihuna lines up with 30 people. Over the months, she says some other single mums or young families have become familiar faces.

"I never would have expected to end up here," she says.

"Once, I would have been one of those people who read about homelessness in the paper and say: ‘Oh God that's horrible.' But when it happens to you, there's no describing it. The reality check is so full-on."

Aviva (formerly Women's Refuge) spokeswoman Julie McCloy said women and children were being hit hard by housing pressures.

"In this competitive housing market, having children or being a solo parent tends to move you down the list of preferred clients," McCloy said.

"When people have the choice of a couple both earning, against a solo parent who could be struggling to make ends meet . . . they're just seen as being more of a risk."

At the Aviva safehouse, average stay time has quadrupled from before the quakes.

"We have had instances of women seeking accommodation but we can't let them into our safe house, even though they're desperate . . . because they haven't experienced family violence."

Rangihuna called on landlords not to dismiss single mums as viable tenants.

"Even though it seems like just another business, you're toying with people's chance at a home. I would ask them to check their conscience regularly. If you're hiking rents up that much further than people can afford, you have to take some responsibility for what happens to those families."

She says $400 is the maximum she can pay in rent from her domestic purposes benefit of $534 a week. Rangihuna is searching for homes in the east, so her kids can stay at their schools. She now spends $120 on the weekly commute from Papanui to New Brighton. While switching schools would save petrol money, she doesn't want to disrupt her kids more.

"My daughter is a prefect. She's 12, she's a school leader, and she's doing so well - and I don't want to disturb that."

But she's worried about the impact of their living situation. "It took me a long time to get angry - to think, no, this isn't good enough. No, my kids don't deserve this. How my kids see the world now frightens me. They've been so accepting, they don't squabble about not having their own space. It worries me a bit that they won't complain - that this has become normal."

Christchurch City Missioner Michael Gorman said staff were approached daily by people seeking safe, affordable housing, but "there's just not a lot we can do".

The mission runs the country's only women's night shelter, set up to respond to a post-quake rise in homeless women. Recently, he said, it has been forced to turn women away.

"It's absolutely awful."

Rangihuna said she still felt lucky "not to have fallen further".

"Really, I'm one of the privileged ones. I want to make that clear - this isn't my sob story. Every day I remind myself, when I start feeling down about it, that I am privileged not to have ended up in a tent or at the refuge or couch surfing round friends. I know there are people out there that don't have that."

Bayleys property manager Matthew Curtis said the agency had "no aversion to renting to single mums," but said "the thing about a working couple or mum and dad is that there's more income".

"If you're looking around $350 or under, there's just so little available. So the competition is very significant."

Rangihuna rang housing New Zealand recently to register for a waiting list. She was told there were more than 200 people ahead of her, and wait times were unknown. She did not complete the process.

"There seemed to be no point."

Rangihuna is studying at CPIT this year, and is close to finishing her music degree. She hopes to work as a teacher.

The Press