The Dominion Post
No-one chooses to be homeless
What is choice when you are young, with little power over your own situation?
Marama Davidson and Nicola Willis’ recent korero about violence in Wellington’s inner city and its connection – or lack thereof – to wha¯ nau being housed in emergency accommodation highlighted how quick we are to blame the victims of the housing crisis, rather than the crisis itself.
In my work with Lifewise, supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness, I often come into contact with wha¯ nau and rangatahi living in emergency accommodation. Too many of these places are unsuitable and unfit. The issue of violence and crime around emergency accommodation is worth highlighting, but only if we acknowledge that the victims are more likely to be the wha¯ nau, young people and children living in these motels, than John or Jane Doe walking down the street.
Which brings us back to the issue of victim-blaming. A dominant narrative that we’re still trying to unravel is that people who experience homelessness choose to do so. Thankfully, in discussions around our adult homeless wha¯ nau, this narrative is beginning to shift; we’re beginning to understand that homelessness is a result of a complex set of inequalities and systemic failures involving, but not solely limited to, the issue of housing.
Yet, when it comes to rangatahi, victim-blaming is still rife.
Whenever I speak publicly about the reality of rangatahi homelessness, I’m told the real problem is the ‘‘lack of discipline in this country’’, that ‘‘these kids are just refusing to go home because they don’t want to obey the rules’’, that they aren’t really homeless, they ‘‘only choose to be so’’.
The issue of choice, especially when it comes to the injustice of homelessness, is a complex one. What is choice when you are young, with little power over your own situation?
Trace was 16 when I first met her. She was a young woman, with a gentle spirit, and a brilliant smile. She taught me a lot about what it meant to choose the streets.
Before she chose to make Queen St her home, she lived in a house with a man who violated and abused her. She didn’t enjoy that situation, so she chose to live on the streets.
But choices have consequences, and she faced them head-on. She told me how cold it got at night, and how she feared being alone; she was young and vulnerable, so she made another choice. She chose to find protection, so she hooked up with an older man to survive, and he did meth, so she chose that too, because it’s cold on the street, and better a numb mind than freezing flesh.
You see, when you’re living on the street, you do what you need to do to survive.
Jake was just 17 when he and I first met. A young Ma¯ ori lad with a friendly smile, and a welcoming disposition, he too chose the streets. He was an orphan, those in his family who were alive had disowned him, so he was low on options. He had nowhere safe to go, no community, no friends, and no access to government assistance.
Dave was 18. His family also disowned him, so he moved to Auckland to be with his girlfriend. When she kicked him out, he didn’t just lose his home, he lost his job, his belongings, and the only ID he had. He tried to get support from Work and Income, but without ID he struggled to set up a benefit. So, without access to housing, he chose the street.
When you say that a young person chooses to become homeless, it needs to be acknowledged that their choices and ours are too often not the same.