Live now
Start time
Playing for
End time
Listen live
Up next
Listen live on

John MacDonald: We're far too quick to label people as homeless in New Zealand

Publish Date
Mon, 20 May 2024, 11:59am
A cross-party homelessness inquiry has already had submissions from 260 individuals concerned with issues surrounding poverty (Photo / File)
A cross-party homelessness inquiry has already had submissions from 260 individuals concerned with issues surrounding poverty (Photo / File)

John MacDonald: We're far too quick to label people as homeless in New Zealand

Publish Date
Mon, 20 May 2024, 11:59am

Shock horror from the OCD today. Shock. Horror.  

It's saying that New Zealand has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the developed world. All right, that's what it's saying. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that our definition of homelessness is broader than most other countries, and I think we're a bit quick to classify someone as being homeless here.  

I'm not saying it's a low bar, but I do think the definition is broader than it should be. We include refugees and asylum seekers looking for temporary accommodation. We include victims of domestic violence. And people living in housing that isn't really up to scratch, as well as rough sleepers. And what I'm keen to find out today is: what someone's situation has to be for you to consider them to be homeless.  

This is at the same time as we have people begging in Richmond in Christchurch saying in the news at the weekend. You might have seen this. They do actually have somewhere to live, but they're struggling to pay for food and power. And so they hit the streets and ask other people for money, which we could all say we struggle to pay the bills to varying degrees, of course. But not all of us sat down the street asking for money. Even your old woke mate here doesn't take kindly to people asking me for money on the street.  

As for the way we define homelessness: It's a little bit like the way we define obesity. You know, once upon a time, obese people were obese. These days, it seems we're all being told that we're obese. Even the slim-jims. “Oh, no, you're obese. Really? Yeah. You're obese.”  

And I think that's where we've got to with the way we define the homelessness here in New Zealand. Well, I get the argument that if you don't have somewhere regular to put your head down at night, maybe you're doing a few nights at one person's place and a few nights atsomeone else's place. If you're living like that, you can probably say you don't have a regular place to live. But can you say you're homeless? In my in my old school, ‘you're only homeless if you sleep in a sleeping bag on Colombo St.’ way of thinking, I don't think you can.  

In my view of the world: if you’ve got a roof over your head, you are not homeless. Because you think of example, you think of all those people in Canterbury. Right now, who have had a relationship break up, for example? Controversial to say? Most likely they're men. So think of someone in that situation. They've had a relationship break up and the start of out having a few nights here and a few nights there, maybe on someone's couch or on a pull-out bed in their lounge. And then bingo, a year down the track they look up and realise they're still doing the same thing. They're still on people's couches, different couches, different nights of the week. Would you consider them homeless? I wouldn't.  

And what about the guy back in November last year? Remember this? There was all this excitement about this homeless guy in Petone putting a $5 bet on the Melbourne Cup and winning just over 100,000 bucks. Remember that? Homeless man turns $5. Bet $5 bet into $106,000 - was one of the headlines. And we all thought, oh, brilliant, couldn't think of a better winner. Well, I did anyway.  

And then, when you started reading all these stories, you found out that he'd been living in a garage for nine months. That he had a TAB account. He was at the Workman's club watching the race and he realised how much he'd won when he went out to the beer garden for a cigarette and had to keep refreshing his TAB account on his phone to make sure he wasn't dreaming when he saw how much he'd won.  

Now I'm not saying just because someone's homeless they shouldn't be allowed to place a bet on the Melbourne Cup. I'm not saying that just because someone's homeless, they shouldn't be going to a bar for a drink. I'm not saying just because someone's homeless, they shouldn't be blowing money on cigarettes. Or that they shouldn't have a smartphone. But what I am saying is we need to have a bit of a rethink as to what we consider homelessness is and what it isn't.  

Example: The guy I mentioned - he'd been sleeping in a garage. Did that make him homeless? Well, according to the formal definition we use here in New Zealand and according to all the headlines last year, yes it did. But if you use my definition, he had a roof over his head. I don't think it did - It didn't make him homeless as far as I'm concerned.  

And the thing about this OCD report is that it has used data from the 2018 census and so with the explosion. In the number of people living in emergency accommodation and motels, for example. Since then, people are saying the numbers are probably worse. And Housing Minister Chris Bishop say he's acknowledging that and he's promising that help is on the way. But he's also saying that part of the problem in terms of the stats and our placing them that OCD is, is part of the problem, could be the way we define homelessness here in New Zealand and how it differs from other countries. And I'm in no doubt about that. And I reckon we are far too quick to label someone as being homeless in this country. 



Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you