Racist Narrative Drives Emergency Housing Fears / A.J. Hendry

“Dare I say it, it’s horrible to say, but you’ve got all these young brown bodies, people walking up and down Fenton St and people don’t like it. It’s a perception. I’m not going to say it’s racism. It’s just a perception there’s more crime happening down there.” – Area Commander, Rotorua Police, Phil Taikato

Several weeks ago National MP Nicola Willis began a discussion about the impact of emergency housing on our communities by inferring that our homeless whānau in motels were responsible for the rise in crime in Central Wellington. At the time Marama Davidson accused her of stigmatising “a group of people with little access and resourcing (and) of attempting to whip up stigmatising and dehumanising narratives around groups of people who need our support.” 

This week, Todd McClay began a similar conversation, raising concerns that housing whānau in motels in Rotorua would have a negative impact on the tourism industry due to the lack of vacancies, and the rise in crime. He suggested that the Government “build more houses” and send the whānau “back to where they came from”. Presumably, he understands that for these whānau, this means sending them back onto the streets.

It is becoming increasingly common to blame our homeless whānau for crime within our cities. Yet, as Phil Taikato the Area Commander of the Rotorua Police himself stated, crime has not increased (in fact its down by 10%), it has just relocated.

Homeless does not equal criminal.

And ironically, though you wouldn’t know it from the headlines, it is our unhoused whānau who are more at risk of becoming victims of violent crime, than Jane or Joe Blogs walking down the street heading to their nice, safe, and warm home.

So, if the data doesn’t support the rhetoric, why is it being deployed in the first place? Well, perhaps it is because fear is easy to sell, it drives headlines, it bolsters support, and support is exactly what the Opposition are needing right now. Maybe that’s a bit cynical, but I can’t for the life of me think of another reason elected MP’s would peddle misinformation, punching down on our most marginalized whānau, when the data points in the opposite direction from the point they are making.

Politicians seeking to make the connection between crime and whānau experiencing homelessness in motels are doing so off the backs of racist and dehumanizing narratives.

Whether he meant to or not, Phil Taikato in a moment of superb honesty named precisely what is at the root of the scapgoating that is being done.

“Dare I say it, it’s horrible to say, but you’ve got all these young brown bodies, people walking up and down Fenton St and people don’t like it. It’s a perception. I’m not going to say it’s racism. It’s just a perception there’s more crime happening down there.”

It’s a perception, people are seeing these “young brown bodies” and they “don’t like it.”

Mr. Taikato doesn’t want to say it’s racism, but I will.

It is racism.

There is no doubt that these narratives are driven by (very) thinly vieled racist sentiment. It is no secret that our Māori whānau experience homelessness at a disproportionat rate to other demographics.

Generations of inequality, left unaddressed, has led to a situation where tangata whenua have been deprived first of their whenua, and now of the right to housing.

If a Pākehā majority were living on our streets, in unstable, and dangerous environments, if our pēpi were being born in motels, and our tamariki were being raised in Emergency Accommodation, I have very little doubt the political will would be there to end this injustice swiftly and decisively.

But, Pākehā are not being disproportionately harmed by this housing crisis, we are disproportionately benefiting from it. Whereas Māori are five times more likely to experience homelessness than any other group, Pākehā are far more likely to own their own home, with 57.9% of Pākehā home owner’s.

It is easy to point fingers at the Government, to condemn politicians for feeding racist narratives, and seeking to benefit from Pākehā prejudice, but the reality is that many fine liberal Pākehā who would be rightly horrified by the racist and discriminatory korero that has circulated this week are also benefiting from the system that is oppressing our Māori whānau. We live on land our ancestor’s stole, and accumulate wealth by means of a system we set up to benefit ourselves. And because we benefit, we support policies that exacerbate this injustice, or oppose policy that could be part of the solution.

There is no end to this housing crisis without sacrifice. We cannot continue the way we are going and secure the Right2Housing for all our people.

As long as housing is a commodity, people will suffer.

As long as landlords believe that their right to “do what they like” with “their property” trumps the human rights of our people, this injustice will continue.

And in the mean time we criminalize and demonize the victims of the problem we created. Māori did not create this housing crisis, Pākehā did. It is our Western Capitalist system that has created the soil this injustice has grown from. Yet, after having stripped the whenua from māori hands, we have crammed the whānau into hotels, left others to live on our streets, and than blamed them for the situation we have put them in.

The human rights crisis our nation is facing will end when we stop accepting the unacceptable. When we stop pretending it’s ok for children to grow up in motels, for teenagers to sleep on our streets, for whānau to be denied the Right2Housing.

When we decide that our right to gain wealth and have safe and secure investments, is secondary to the right for people to have access to safe and secure housing.

One day we will look on this moment in our history in the same way many American’s reflect of the aberration of the slave trade.

We will ask ourselves, how it was that we allowed human beings to experience homelessness?

Our grandkids will look us in the eye’s horrified that any society could be so callous, so cruel.

And when they ask you what you did about it, whether you fought for the human rights of those our society has marginalized and oppressed, or whether you gained from the system causing harm to our people, what will you say?

Do not be deceived, homelessness is not an accident.

Nor, is it a necessary part of our society.

We can end it.

But, only once we’ve decided that the wellbeing of our people, outweighs the profit we can gain by keeping the system the way it is.

A.J. Hendry is a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also a steering group member of Manaaki Rangatahi, a collective working to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.


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