Women and children living in parks

Park living is the only option

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 05:00 31/05/2014
homeless

DISTRESSING: More and more women and children are living in parks.

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Women and their children are resorting to living in city parks as they struggle to find a home.

This week, a mother and her child were taken in by Comcare from a tent on an empty section, after the woman caught pneumonia.

The woman, who did not want to be identified, had been living in the tent since February with her 10-year-old disabled son.

She is recovering in an emergency housing unit.

Social agencies across Christchurch have noted an increase in the number of families spending the night outdoors.

Comcare housing services manager Annette Sutherland said the increase in such cases was worrying.

"The numbers of people living homeless in cars or in tents or in a park have increased a lot. It's especially distressing when there are children as well."

Sutherland said the loss of low-end properties and the high price of rentals were contributing to the increase of homelessness.

One woman The Press spoke to claimed to have been sleeping in Wainoni Park intermittently for two weeks, with her 19-month-old son. Heather Te Wani said while awaiting a Housing New Zealand property, she had been staying with her aunt, whose house was now undergoing earthquake repairs.

Her aunt had moved in with relatives and there was no room for her and her son, Manaaki, she said. Te Wani had been sleeping under play equipment in the Hampshire St park as she felt she was exhausting offers from friends and family, and did not "want to be a charity case".

She bundles Manaaki in blankets in his pram on her nights in the park, and then lies on a blanket beside him. She tends to stay awake most nights to look out for her child, and an ex-partner visits during the night to keep an eye on the pair, she said.

Te Wani spends her evenings at the house of a friend, who she pays $40 a week for meals, before returning to the park or - if she has an offer at the time - another friend's house to sleep.

Manaaki has respiratory problems, and she has pancreatitis due to a history of heavy drinking.

When Te Wani turned up at a friend's house at 4am on Tuesday, after the temperature plummeted to -4 degrees Celsius, the child's storm cover was "completely iced over". She is priority A on the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) waiting list, along with about 270 others.

But she knows she has a past that may work against her in her bid for housing.

In 2004, when she was 20, Te Wani was arrested for her part in the systematic theft of 640 library books to the value of $34,000, along with Damien Keen, the father of her first child, and two members of his family. About the same time, she was arrested for forging sales receipts from The Warehouse to get illegitimate refunds.

A colourful courtroom saga ensued, beginning when she began verbally abusing police at each of her appearances.

Five weeks later, Te Wani played a role in Keen's attempt at a jail-break from the van he was travelling to court in.

She was jailed for 19 months with leave to apply for home detention on charges of burglary, fraud, obtaining by deception and disorderly behaviour for her role in the library scam. She received a further four months for stealing from her mother.

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Te Wani said she had since turned her life around after she fell pregnant for the third time.

"That stuff was in the past, they shouldn't be using that against me. I stuffed up, but I've paid the consequences - I paid with my children. I'm trying to do the right thing now."

She said she has not had a criminal conviction for five years, and she was "working her way back" to getting her older two children, who are in care with relatives, returned to her.

She has been a recipient of food parcels from the City Mission, and receives Sole Parent Support.

She refused to visit shelters provided by city agencies, as she believed they were not suitable for her and a child.

The Ministry of Social Development would not reveal what number Te Wani was on the waiting list, but she said she had been told she is "at the top".

Aviva acting chief executive Julie McCloy said families may be forced into unsuitable sleeping arrangements as they did not fit the criteria for over-subscribed support services.

"We do know of instances in which [young] families are sleeping in vulnerable and inappropriate places like cars and parks, or abandoned houses or garages without ventilation, insulation [or] heating and which aren't weather-tight."

McCloy said a criminal background was generally less of an issue for emergency or high needs housing, and barriers tended to be addiction, having children or mental health issues.

"As a sector, we have seen these gaps for years relating to accommodation and people with complex and/or multiple needs, and knew they would only get worse post-disaster."

City missioner Michael Gorman said it was really difficult for those with criminal convictions and undesirable backgrounds to find accommodation in an already-stretched rental market.

"Some people present such a degree of difficulty they really need some degree of assistance.

"Individuals and families are trying all sorts of options. Some are doing red-zoned stuff still, and there's a man going into a garage with four other people in it."

Christchurch police and the city council were unaware of cases of homelessness involving children or families.

- The Press

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