This week I had a 14-year-old reach out to me in desperate need of somewhere safe to stay.
She’s not the first child under 16-years-old who’s been at risk of homelessness this lockdown.
She won’t be the last.
We were able to do what we could for her, and through some powerful advocacy from my team were able to get a good result.
But this experience reminded me of something else.
Youth Homelessness is not an issue in an of itself, it’s a symptom of something deeper.
A darker problem that lurks within our communities.
A more deadly plague than the one that hits our headlines every day.
Before COVID ever touched our shores, this nation has been suffering under the weight of a pandemic of poverty that has been tearing our communities a part.
A pandemic that’s harm has only been exacerbated as a result of Covid19.
This week MSD released a report that revealed that 8,500 more people have needed financial assistance from the Government since the start of the Delta outbreak.
That’s 8,500 more people on the benefit.
8,500 more people either expierencing poverty, or at risk of doing so fairly soon.
I read this news this week as I sat at my kitchen table, drinking my coffee, and listening to my whānau discuss the vaccine roll out. The two realities hit me. On one hand we have spent billions to keep our people safe from this disease, creating MIQ, funding research, purchasing vaccines, and yet on the other, we have kids living on our streets, and whānau without enough food to eat.
Two very different responses.
I’ve reflected a lot over the last year or so about why we’ve taken such a radically different approach to poverty as to this disease?
Do we expect that poverty is a necessary and acceptable reality within our communities?
Do we not care?
Is it just not real enough for us?
With all the billions poured into the Covid response, what if we’d invested that into eradicating poverty and reducing inequality a decade ago? How would that have changed the impact of this disease on our nation? If whānau had food, and homes, and health care, would more of our whānau have been immunised against the spread of misinformation? Would Delta have been able to get away from us? Would we have been able to have avoided it’s spread within our street community, by not having a street community?
I can understand why so many of our street whānau don’t trust the government.
I can understand why they might be susceptible to ideas that the government is trying to eradicate them by creating a fictional disease and forcing them to get a vaccine that is designed to kill them.
These ideas don’t hit too far from home. To many of our street whānau are māori, they’ve expierenced this before. Colonization was the attempt to eradicate the māori people and their culture. And our street community are still feeling the impacts of our government’s betrayal. Their tupuna were torn from their whenua, and they are still displaced. Living on our streets, and in hotel rooms, while people who own multiple homes tell them to “stay home, stop the spread”, and then condemn them when such a request is a simple impossibility.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
Covid19 has demonstrated that when the political will is there, we can move mountains to protect our people.
The only question that remains is why haven’t we?
Why haven’t we gone hard and fast on poverty?
Why haven’t we got daily briefings addressing the human rights crisis that is denying our people housing?
Why haven’t we pulled together whatever billions we need to make sure that every child in this country has a roof over their head, that every person has enough food, that every whānau can access the basic necessities of life?
Because it turns out that when the need was great enough, we could always find the money to respond.
And the need is great enough.
Poverty is killing people.
It is destroying souls, and crushing communities, and if you don’t feel that, then perhaps that’s part of the problem.
As I’ve reflected on these questions, one answer seems fairly clear to me.
No government has done what it could do to eradicate poverty and ensure the basic human rights of our people, because we as a collective, do not care enough.
The hard reality is that due to colonization issues of inequality and injustice fall most heavily upon our māori whānau.
And for us pākehā who are largely middle to upper class, and largely hold the voting majority, we just don’t experience the weight of this pandemic. And so eradicating poverty has never been a priority for the majority of pākehā. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, and we feel sorry for those poor people when we hear their stories, but they aren’t our whānau. So, though we care, we don’t care enough to allow it to cost us.
And yet, when Covid19 came to our shores, when we were faced with a pandemic that would impact our white, middle class, communities, suddenly the will for radical, transformational change was ignited. Suddenly, the Government had the political will behind them to do what they needed to do, whatever they needed to do, to stop this pandemic.
But, going slow on poverty will cost us.
Delta is already taking hold within communities which we have made vulnerable, and here we are reminded that those white picket fences were never enough to protect us. We are more connected than we have ever cared to admit. And though we may have discriminated against our māori whānau, Delta won’t discriminate against us.
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now 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 an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.