Homeless need help

BARE BONES: The housing crisis in Christchurch has left mother-of-two Amber Breiter with no choice but to live in a single garage.
BARE BONES: The housing crisis in Christchurch has left mother-of-two Amber Breiter with no choice but to live in a single garage.

Little Jesse doubting his mother's love as the family is forced to live in a Linwood garage provides a touching representative face to the almost-homeless in post-earthquake Christchurch.

As reported in yesterday's Press, the family cannot find a suitable rental and so is forced to inhabit the unheated, carpetless and windowless garage, and their plight is suffered by others.

How many others is unknown, but the reports from social agencies suggest it is too many and that their homelessness has gone on too long. This coming winter, Tenants Protection Association manager Helen Gatonyi says, is "shaping up to be the worst" and will be very difficult for a large number of people.

There is no doubt that homelessness is an issue in Christchurch and that flats are hard to find and their rentals expensive. How much distress that is causing is uncertain because no one agency is collating information.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is meant to be doing so but so far has not released its report on a project begun in June last year.

Its delay, a spokeswoman said, was to ensure the information was correct and the report "robust".

That excuse is possibly pragmatic, but given that the comfort and security of people is at stake, this is an issue that should be treated with some urgency. The Government must engage energetically with housing problems. The installation of a new housing minister may be a sign that, at last, these issues are being taken seriously.

Gerry Brownlee famously said there was no housing crisis in Christchurch - that at a time when this paper was reporting what amounted to a frenzy among earthquake-displaced people to get a leak-proof roof over their heads. It seemed the minister and his Government were content to let the market respond to the accommodation shortage, and perhaps the desired response has occurred. The number of people writing to The Press about their inability to find accommodation has dropped markedly, which suggests the market is better meeting demand.

Also, Housing New Zealand is building more homes and the Department of Social Development is attending to cases of accommodation distress.

They need to be energetic because about 1000 social housing units were lost in the quakes - a loss that impacts directly on the poor. That is borne out by Jesse's story and the testimony of social agencies. Their evidence shows that the less well off are struggling in all areas of life as the economy remains sluggish and unemployment rises, and as always in such circumstances housing becomes difficult.

Things would be better had Housing New Zealand been quicker to bring back into use its units made uninhabitable in the quakes. Fourteen months after the February 2011 event, 683 of its homes remained unrepaired, a lack of action that forced Brownlee to lean on the agency, urging that the repairs be done urgently. By last October it had brought 212 units back on stream and was engaged in planning to build between 200 and 350 houses, at a cost of between $60 million and $90 million, in the metropolitan area over the next year or so.

That should eventually end the plight of Jesse and his family and others like them, but in the meantime they will live in conditions that shame the city if their plight remains unattended. They need help and it should be provided.

The Press