There are young people in New Zealand who grow up homeless – it’s up to all of us to help them find safety and security so they don’t spend their adult lives on the streets.
It's not that we don’t know it’s a problem – talk to anyone serving rangatahi around the country and they will tell you that homelessness is one of the greatest challenges young people face.
At Lifewise, when we speak to rangatahi about their experiences of homelessness, many of them tell us that they can't remember a time when they had a safe, secure, stable home.
Imagine that, growing up without a home, living day to day, week to week, month to month, never knowing when you might find the next "safe" place to stay.
I recently spoke with a young person who had been sleeping rough on the streets of Auckland. She explained to me that as far back as she could remember she had been homeless. Sure, she had a house sometimes, staying with an uncle here for a bit, an aunty there, but nothing permanent. She stayed where she could, for as long as she could. Eventually, her options began to wear thin. She found herself staying with friends, then friends of friends. Often in unsafe and less than hospitable environments. Until, eventually she found herself with nowhere to go but the street.
In the Auckland homeless count last year, 1,300 young people were found living in emergency accommodation and on our streets. And we know that number barely scratches the surface of what’s going on. It is often said that the problem with youth homelessness is that it's hidden. Rangatahi do a better job at blending in than their adult counterparts, and due to the lack of specific emergency accommodation for them, they often find themselves moving around from park to couch, to street to bridge, to try find some illusion of safety wherever they can get it. The homeless count wasn’t able to account for the unique circumstances of rangatahi homelessness. Yet let’s just imagine for a second that number was correct – 1,300 should be shocking enough.
With all the discrimination and stereotypes that surround rangatahi, it's easy to ignore them and put them in the ‘too hard’ basket, to choose not to see what could only be described as one of the greatest human rights violations of our time.
Every young person has the right to live in a safe, secure and loving environment. To have adequate food to eat, and clothes to wear, to be protected from torture and abuse, to be able to access health care, and receive an education. To live life free from exploitation and discrimination.
Yet, our homeless rangatahi have been denied these rights. And ignoring these rights isn’t making the issue go away. It’s only making it worse.
Over the last few years, there has been increased funding into addressing adult homelessness. The work Housing First has been doing is specifically meaningful and making a difference in the lives of many adults who have been on the streets for a significant amount of time.
Yet, if we aren't asking the question of why this is happening in the first place, if we aren't looking to prevent homelessness in general, then we will be throwing money at this issue for generations to come.
If we truly want to end long-term, street-entrenched homelessness, then we need to start by taking care of our rangatahi.
Now, it’s easy to shift responsibility to the government. But this is not just a government problem.
Sure, the government could do more; we need a tailored, youth-specific, programme similar to Housing First which can adequately support rangatahi who have some of the highest and complex needs. We need a national strategy to address youth homelessness, and a coordinated approach, so that when young people need help, they know where to get it, and they can get it immediately. And we need to get a hold of the true numbers, we need to know exactly how big the problem is, so that we can advocate for change. These initiatives are vital, and the government can have a hand in supporting them.
But these alone won’t do much – this is an issue that speaks directly to the brokenness of our communities. And that is a problem the government cannot address. It is our problem.
We have allowed the streets, tents, parks and garages to be acceptable homes for rangatahi who do not have safe, secure and stable places of their own, to live.
Instead of being a community, we have closed our eyes to what has been going on around us, we have cut them adrift, and allowed them to suffer on their own.
But we can be the solution. This problem originates in our communities, equally, it is our communities that have the power to end it.
You don't have to have funding, you don't have to start an organisation – all you need to do is care.
There is no one quick fix. It will mean pushing back on our culture of individualism. A culture that demands we centre our lives solely upon ourselves, ordering our existence by what is most convenient for us alone. We will have to choose to get involved in the lives of others. And that’s going to be messy, challenging, perhaps even downright scary. Yet, if we truly believe it is unacceptable for our kids to live on the streets, then this is the price we must pay.
The first step for some of us may just be getting to know those who are on the margins of our communities. Get to know the families who are struggling in your local school, sports club, playgroup, street. Not as charity cases, but as people. Become involved in each other's lives, eat with each other, hang out, become friends, show that you care. And then, when you notice whanau struggling, be there. Offer your spare room to the young person whose dad is threatening to kick him out. Help the whanau who are struggling to make ends meet get connected with their benefit entitlements. Provide a listening ear, and compassion to the mother who is at her wits end trying to support her teen daughter. Ask your kid’s friends what’s going on in their lives, and listen when they open up to you.
To end youth homelessness, we must rediscover what it means to be a community.
And if we can do that, if we can begin to regain our collective responsibility for one another, we will start down the road that will see homelessness become a relic of our past.
At the end of the day, these are our kids. Our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. These are your teen’s school mates, or your friend's child.
They belong to us.
And we can end this.
We just have to care enough to try.
Aaron Hendry blogs at When Lambs Are Silent, and is Team Leader at Lifewise Youth Housing.