Quiet Xmas on struggle street

16:00, Dec 09 2013

When The Press visited Charlene Kihi late last month she was grappling with what to do for her son Koha Whakamoe's birthday.

He was excited, asking his mum what gift would be waiting for him in the morning.

But she had no presents for him. She can barely afford to keep him fed.

Kihi moved back to Christchurch with her three children in February after a stint in Taranaki.

Kihi had saved for two and a half years to return to the city she grew up in, to distance herself from an abusive ex-partner.

Since February, she has moved constantly. She and her family spent about four months with Women's Refuge, before moving on to the YWCA for six weeks, and finally to couch-surfing at friends' houses around the city. When she was finally successful in securing a home, she described the feeling as like "winning the Lotto".

However, the family has little furniture for their new home, and Kihi is also worried about costly weeks ahead.

"My boy was sitting at the mall before trying to guess what I'm getting him for his birthday," she told The Press then.

"He turns four tomorrow, and I can't do anything for him. It's shattering."

Kihi's other son is also struggling.

He had turned violent at school, he was over-tired and having frequent "lashouts".

"His stress levels are through the roof. He's just lashing out at all the wrong people," Kihi said.

She knew her family was struggling, but said she was "backed into a corner".

"There's only so much you can do to help them, and it's still not enough. I laugh, because I don't want to cry."

Koha is one of the 265,000 children in New Zealand living in poverty. A recent progress report released by the Office of the Children's Commissioner says that of the 265,000 children in poverty, 51 per cent are children living with a solo parent. Sixty per cent are from beneficiary families.

Kihi's son's birthday was only the start of a taxing month. The family is likely to forgo Christmas this year.

Paul McMahon, of St John of God Waipuna, said: "It's astounding what people can get themselves into just to have a good Christmas.

"So many families will get themselves into financial strife because of Christmas, or the lead-up to Christmas.

"Lots of middle-class families nowadays do a Secret Santa, because it's just so expensive. If that's what it's like for the middle class, imagine what it's like when you've got a fixed income. Low-income families get into considerable debt at Christmas."

Other solo parents in the city have found themselves in similar situations ahead of the holiday period.

Amy Scott and her two children have moved houses five times since the earthquakes. Scott lost her job after work as a bartender "dwindled off". She lost her mode of transport in a minor accident.

She is now on the benefit, and after paying rent and power, she has $70 a week to spend on food.

"It's a struggle; each week I have to choose which bill I'm going to pay. It's really hard, especially when you're used to earning," she said.

She had been seeking work since losing her job in July, but was finding it hard to compete with the influx of other candidates for the positions.

"I've been to every bar, every retail place, supermarkets, The Warehouse ... in the past month I've handed out 30 CVs."

She pulled her daughter from Girl Guides because she could not afford the fees. She could not afford to send either child to relatively inexpensive activities, including swimming lessons.

Both children were also "constantly sick" due to the poor state of the house they were in, Scott said. While the children had "adjusted as kids do", it was not out of naivety.

"You start to notice comments like 'Oh but we can't afford that, eh?'. They're aware of it, which is quite sad."

The family would find solace at Waltham Community Cottage for Christmas, where they will be fed and the children would receive a small present.

"I've tried to let them know that it's going to be a quiet one, but I don't think they'll fully understand until the day comes. I just want to cry - never in my life did I think I'd be in this position."

- Today The Press launches a series on the real impact of poverty in our community.

Our reporters have spent time with people who do not have enough money day-to-day.

Their stories are, at times, uncomfortable reading. The grim truth is that those who are poor are more likely to be sick, their children less likely to flourish.

We are grateful to the people who have shared their stories with us. They will no doubt face criticism for fronting up. We, and they, hope that this insight into their lives will help our community and decision-makers do all we can to support the most vulnerable who live with us — the poor, the hungry, the addicted, the disenfranchised.

+ Poverty should worry us all


The Press