Rise up for our homeless

04:41, May 11 2012

Seemingly daily, debate rages over the Marmite shortage, how many million dollars should be spent on a convention centre or whether Christchurch's iconic cathedral can be saved.

Some might be cheering the fact that we now have somewhere to play rugby, but I am more concerned that some of our region's most vulnerable people have nowhere to call home.

We are talking about mothers with young children who have to choose between living in a unsafe, red-zoned home or sleeping in the car with their child and some families are even living in their garages.

That this is happening in New Zealand shocks me. It should shock you too.

If there is widespread outrage at this I haven't seen it.

People are marching on Parliament with any number of causes splashed across banners but not about this.

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In Christchurch, some Weet-Bix eating, Marmite-desiring Kiwi kids are having to sleep in cars or unsafe homes.

Where's the compassion?

It's not just humans suffering homelessless, Christchurch pets are being dumped and abandoned at an alarmingly high rate.

A group of us have spent a lot of time this week attempting to coax the kitten pictured, presumed to have been dumped, out from under our portacom.

We contacted the SPCA who told us it would take two days for them to come here to help. It's pretty cold at night so we've been leaving a box with a blanket wedged under the portacom.

For days I have heard its distressed meowing directly underneath my feet.

After several days and many tins of Fancy Feast later - in what we have called Operation Catnip and including our key operatives from finance - Liz Vincent and Mark de Nijs, pictured - have managed to get him/her to trust us enough to come out.

I've named this little scruff 14, after our portacom. It's a bit gangster but it suits. If Operation Catnip is successful, I'm hoping to give 14 a home.

On February 22, 2011 I wrote, asking you to have our backs, New Zealand.

The people of Christchurch appreciate your generosity and kindness since the quakes, even if we do appear to be like the spoilt toddler demanding the nation's attention.

We appreciate everything you've done so far, but, as I wrote then, recovering from this disaster is a marathon, not a sprint.

We need you to stand up and make a noise about this housing crisis.

In reality the February 22 quake was two disasters.

The initial disaster was the 6.3 quake which ripped the heart from our city and stole 182 loved ones from their families.

The secondary disaster has been the disjointed and ineffective approach from Government bodies charged with leading the recovery, coupled with poor communication and insurance companies whose main priority appears to be saving their shareholders' portfolios.

Stuck in the middle of this mess is the average Kiwi.

The devastating consequences of the Christchurch quakes are too numerous to mention and have been reported consistently in The Press.

In the initial days following the quake, the people of New Zealand moved me with their offers of help, generously donating their holiday homes to displaced families.

Go to the Emergency Accommodation section of the Christchurch Earthquake Support portion of the TradeMe site now and it's a different story.

Now it is people begging for somewhere to live and two listings outside of Christchurch offering paid holiday accommodation.

Where's the love now?

Many view homeless people as worthless, lazy criminals or worse.

These unfortunate people are treated as if they have committed some sort of crime simply because they can't afford a roof over their head.

In Christchurch vulnerable quake-affected people, including young families, are suffering, really suffering.

They have children just like yours - who have nowhere to go to sleep that is safe and warm.

Where's Housing New Zealand you ask? Hands are tied, apparently, insurance issues that won't see any work starting until August - well after winter has placed its icy grip on this city.

Where's the Government you ask?

Last month Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker admitted the city's rental housing shortage is a ''crisis for some people''.

But Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee didn't believe the rental housing shortage in Christchurch to be a crisis.

Yeah, he knows other people aside from him are homeless - sleeping in cars, sheds and garages - but nah, there's no rental crisis. He admitted there was a problem, but not a crisis.

I don't know about you but if I was sleeping in my car with a young child to me that constitutes a crisis.

This is New Zealand, there should not be one child forced to contemplate such an existence.

But no, our earthquake Tsar doesn't want to listen to welfare agencies who believe the crisis is at a breaking point and that the Government needs to intervene.

It's gotten to the point that people who used to volunteer their services at food banks are now the very same people forced to stand in queues, desperate for handouts.

How does someone become homeless?

If you are unemployed it is difficult to find transportation, housing and pay electricity bills and buy food. If, on top of your unemployment you find yourself paying a mortgage for a damaged home you can't live in and also having to rent a home - priced exorbitantly highly because of demand - it's a precarious, frightening financial balancing act that leads to a downward spiral of insurmountable debt.

Less materially fortunate people who find themselves living on the streets are often referred to as ''hobos'', ''bums'' or ''vagrants''. Some of a serious case of hobophobia when what really is required is empathy and humanity.

The phrase ''The Homeless'' speaks of a group of faceless people, but they should not be faceless, hidden from society. These are people with individual faces, dreams and hopes. I think prisoners are treated better.

Recently I spoke to a security guard who had been working the beat in the CBD red zone.

He talked of homeless people he has seen who have been living on the edges of the cordon since the quake, in and around dangerous buildings. He repeated their tales to me. The way they slept on newspapers and cardboard boxes, how they built small fires out of broken doors from shattered buildings. For some reason the thought that someone might sleep on words I might have written really affected me.

He talked of how his own compassion became too much for him and he scouted them a safer place to stay after he couldn't sleep at night for worrying about them.

They weren't bad people, he said. They weren't violent drug addicts or thieves, they were ordinary men whose wives had left them or they'd lost their jobs after the quake and suddenly found themselves middle-aged, homeless and financially destitute.

What would you do in that situation?

There's no-one to save them but themselves and each other. He talked of their comraderie, the philosophical discussions, the sense of community they shared.

It made me sad.

The security guard arranged for me to meet one of the homeless men dossing there.

We met on a Gap Filler site. It seemed appropriate. I took him a bottle of water, a blanket and some muffins I'd made which he accepted gracefully.

He appeared to be over 60. I asked him his age but he didn't want to tell me. His hands shook but I don't know if it was from hunger or from something more serious, like Parkinson's Disease. He assured me was not a drinker. He smelled bad, he apologised for that.

It was humbling. Intensely humbling.

From his back pocket he pulled a carefully folded, grainy black and white picture of a toddler, his daughter, who had died aged one of cot death. He trembled while explaining he was waiting to die to see her. He spoke of his belief in God and how this belief in something bigger than himself gave him comfort late at night when he was frightened. It seems middle class teens like to pick on the homeless at night so he had to learn how to hide well. He said that although he was suffering now but when he passed on to the next realm he would be with his child and safe. He spoke of his daughter with much love and tenderness.

It struck me that this man of substance would not turn down an opportunity to find shelter in a cardboard cathedral.

If this kind, educated gentleman can be discarded by society, what does this say about us?

I don't know how to fix this situation, I'm writing this in the hope of raising awareness of this homelessness. After the quake my family came close to it and it's a terrifying situation to contemplate. You wouldn't wish it on anyone, let alone our society's most vulnerable - women, children and the elderly.

Experts have said that homelessness happens when you have a series of negative events in your life in a short space of time and you can't bounce back quickly enough.

It's that simple.

You have to remember that the entire city of Christchurch shared a collective, life-changing event, many people are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and, although that event was well over a year ago, they're still exhausted, anxious and uncertain be it from insurance worries or family and financial pressures.

These are not people who are homeless because they are too lazy or out-of-it on chemical substances to contribute to society. They have been broken because of circumstances beyond their control.

But homelessness doesn't make for an attractive addition for the 6 o'clock news, it is not something nice people want to look at while they are eating their dinner. When you next look in a mirror, remember the faces of Christchurch's homeless people are just like yours.

Rise up.

The Press