The complex paths to homelessness

Hundreds of people sleep rough every night: what leads them to homelessness?
CHRIS McKEEN/FAIRFAX NZ

Hundreds of people sleep rough every night: what leads them to homelessness?

Only a small percentage of the country's homeless community are sleeping rough by choice. Why are so many people out on the streets? Hannah Martin reports.

"All people lead hard lives, but street people have it the hardest."

Samuel* has been sleeping rough for four years.

It is 3pm and he is just waking up. He says lately he has to sleep most of the day to get through the cold.

After his mother died, Samuel didn't have any family to support him and he ended up on the streets.

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For the past 19 months he has slept in doorways and taken shelter in stairwells around Wellington's Courtenay Place. 

He is one of the 41,000 people in New Zealand who are severely housing deprived.

The paths to homelessness are complex. Anything from unemployment, poverty, illness, housing, addiction issues, abuse and family or relationship breakdowns can contribute towards people becoming homeless.

A study conducted by the Auckland City Council sheds some light on the diverse influences.

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"As they described their childhood stories, many of which included experiences of family violence, it became apparent that the notion of choice is complex.

"The 'choice' to do so was more often than not a result of having no other options," the study said.

Wilf Holt, a member of the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness, says there is a gap in people's knowledge about how people end up homeless.

"People don't think about how you get into homelessness, they just have a 'pull your socks up' attitude towards [it]."

Holt is the Homeless Community Services team leader for the Auckland City Mission, and says he sees people from all walks of life come through their doors.

He says people need to realise that "homelessness does not discriminate", and neither does mental illness, abuse or addiction.

"We've seen school teachers, truck drivers, lawyers come through here."

"Nobody plans on being homeless."

PERSONAL CRISES

Researcher at Otago University Dr Kate Amore says, as with Samuel, personal crisis can be a major push into homelessness.

Some people have been on the streets since childhood, leaving their families in order to escape terrible abuse.

For teenagers and adults chronic mental illness, sudden physical illness, relationship breakdowns and loss of employment are all factors which can contribute to a person not having a stable place to live.

Amore says for men in particular it is common for a relationship breakdown to send them into homelessness.

"After a long-term relationship ends, many just don't know how to cope."

For women and children who end up on the streets the most common driver is family violence.

She says, however, that the biggest reason people end up sleeping rough in New Zealand is unaffordable housing - particularly the poor and vulnerable.

Even if they find a place to live, homeless people do not make for attractive tenants, Amore says.

"It's so difficult for these people to survive on the streets, and it's even harder to get out."

ILLNESS

Lifewise chief executive Moira Lawler says for particularly vulnerable people, such as those with existing mental illness or difficult to diagnose conditions like head trauma, anything giving way in a person's life can lead them over the edge.

"Big life events happen to people all the time - but if you're already in a vulnerable place it's going to make things that much harder."

Things like job loss, illness, divorce, large amounts of debt, being thrown out of home or being evicted can be hard on all of us, but especially those who are already vulnerable to distress.

"If you have supports, you survive, if you don't, you end up homeless.

"These people are truly caught between a rock and a hard place. Homelessness may be a choice sometimes, but it's a Hobson's choice."

REINTEGRATION TO SOCIETY FROM PRISON

Leaving the prison system can mean returning home and reuniting with family. 

But for some, being released from prison means life on the street.

The Department of Corrections have contracts for six transitional accommodation services - halfway homes - throughout the country.

Under Corrections, "high-needs" offenders are placed in accommodation for 13 weeks after leaving the prison system. The next stop is to move into independent accommodation, with the ex-prisoner paying for their rental and living costs.

Many prisoners are released from prison with no accommodation, no job and face waiting for weeks before they can start receiving a benefit.

Pathway are a charitable organisation based in Christchurch that provide reintegration and support for men who have just been released from prison.

Carey Ewing, a representative for Pathway, says they work with far more individuals than they can accommodate.

They assess prisoners eligibility and needs for eight weeks before release to develop a partnership and can then house them for three to six months afterwards.  

"We're not interested in just giving these people an address, we're interested in full integration."

They have room for only six to eight people per year. 

For people who cannot access supported accommodation, sleeping rough can be a last resort.

SUBSTANCE AND ALCOHOL ABUSE

Homeless people abusing drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their deprivation is well-documented globally.

But for some, addiction is what caused them to be out on the streets in the first place.

Regional manager for Community Alcohol and Drug Services (Cads) Robert Steenhuisen says the evidence of addiction and homelessness is clear.

He described seeing people sitting on the side of Auckland's Queen St, drinking at 8am.

He says while 50-100 rough sleepers attend Cads addiction services per year, it can be very difficult for some to complete treatment while they are still out on the streets.

Homeless people have unconventional routines. "You're always thinking 'where can I sleep tonight?' 'Where can I store my stuff?' 'Where will my next meal come from?' Attending a 2pm appointment at a Cads recovering group isn't so easy for them."

Steenhuisen says it is important to acknowledge people who are homeless and struggling with addiction issues are also struggling with a lack of options.

"Society can be unbelievably unforgiving.

"Once you find yourself at the lowest point it's very hard to come back from that."

*name has been changed.

* Comments on this story have now been closed.

 - Stuff

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