Ricky Houghton is about finding innovative solutions to the issues facing Māori

by Clare de Lore / 23 February, 2018

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Ricky Houghton, now recipient of the Local Hero of the Year award at the 2018 New Zealander of the Year Awards. Photo/Clare de Lore

Ricky Houghton, named Local Hero of the Year at the 2018 New Zealander of the Year Awards. Photo/Clare de Lore

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No government on their own can fix the problems facing Māori in the Far North, warns Local Hero of the Year Ricky Houghton.

Northland community leader Ricky Houghton has good reason to be sceptical about state promises to help Māori. Houghton, Ngāti Kahu and Ngāti Whātua, survived horrendous abuse as a child while in state care, fathered his first child at 14 and is now a great-grandfather at 57.

His father, Gilbert, was an Englishman who fought alongside the Māori Battalion in World War II and later immigrated to New Zealand where he met his future wife, Tukino, whose family were from Northland. The couple settled in West Auckland and had five children. Houghton was the youngest.

Nineteen years ago, two momentous things happened – Houghton was libelled by the New Zealand Herald and won a settlement that, fortuitously, saved his house from an impending mortgagee sale. He also reconnected with his Māori origins and founded the He Korowai Trust, an agency of last resort for people in Kaitaia. The trust has recycled former state homes destined for demolition, turning them into affordable housing, has established an early childcare centre and provides emergency accommodation alongside a range of other social services.

Houghton was named Local Hero of the Year at the 2018 New Zealander of the Year Awards after this story went to press.

What do you remember of your early childhood?

I had a beautiful upbringing in West Auckland. Yes, I remember the days of the dawn raids and people struggling, but there wasn’t a “them and us”, a Māori and Pakeha. We were all the same, good mates.

Houghton with the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo/Clare de Lore

Houghton with the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo/Clare de Lore

When did life take a turn for the worse?

When I was eight, my mother was institutionalised and my father had a breakdown. Suddenly, my mates said they weren’t allowed to play with me any more because my mother was mad and my father was a drunk. So I used to play with much older kids. I was the youngest and smallest, always the last one out of a stolen car or the first one pushed through a window for a burglary. I was considered not under proper control, so I was put into care.

What happened?

I was in various institutions, then ended up at Hokio [Beach Training School] in Levin, a boys’ home. I was very young, and it was cold and scary. I was told I was a bad boy and I became what they told me I was. I was given shock treatment – that was the so-called care – and I was pack-raped by the older boys.

How has that affected you?

I met my wife, Rosie, when I was 11, but I didn’t really know how to communicate with her. I thought I was damaged physically and sexually because of what had happened to me in care, but Rosie taught me how to love and how to live. She is everything to me. I was a dad at 14, and we now have three kids, 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A recent photo of some of Houghton's grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Photo/Houghton family

A recent photo of some of Houghton's grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Photo/Houghton family

How did you and Rosie manage being such young parents?

I got an exemption to leave school so I could support my family. At 17, with two children by then, I bought the Maori Affairs [Department] home that we still live in today, in West Auckland. Rosie is from a family of 21, she has 15 sisters and six brothers. She had a lot of family support and she is a good mum. She can make a meal out of nothing. I had three jobs. I would work at a factory during the day, but I wasn’t allowed to do an apprenticeship, because I didn’t have three years’ secondary schooling. At night, I did security at hotels. I’d be kicking out underage drinkers older than me – I was only 16. I was also on rubbish trucks, and by the time I was 22, I had my own rubbish collection business. I would run behind the trucks getting rid of my fears.

Will you be giving testimony to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care?

I have already given my testimony to the Confidential Forum for Former In-Patients of Psychiatric Hospitals, headed by Sir Anand Satyanand before he became Governor-General. They have acknowledged the harm – my long-term memory is gone as a result of the shock treatment, and dementia is a real risk for me. The state has promised to take care of me when my mind goes, so I am not a burden on my family.

Can government interventions change life for your people in Kaitaia?

The solution for Māori will not come out of a hole in the wall in Kaitaia, nor will it come out of Wellington. You need to know the socio-economic makeup of Kaitaia: 63% are Māori, 85% are on some sort of benefit, 37% are single parents and the average income is $21,000. The state has created a dependency with the people on $21,000. The national recognised poverty line is $28,000, and they are 25% below that and struggling.

The state cannot keep paying for these families. The solutions must come from within Māori. Māori are not broke. They are quite rich, they have ancestral land they could go and live on, and we have developed models where we can house families back on their ancestral land for about $100,000 and free up a state asset worth $250,000 for another family. Every house move is different, but that’s an average.

Te Whare Rūnanga at Waitangi. Photo/Alamy

Te Whare Rūnanga at Waitangi. Photo/Alamy

If that’s the case, what’s stopping you doing more?

There is so much bureaucracy. These families can’t even get a home with help from a provider like me because they do not meet the banks’ lending criteria in spite of the Government insuring the loans to the banks. If either of the homeowners has a criminal record, they are very unlikely to get insurance for their homes, and therefore they won’t get a mortgage. The state will pay their benefit, but the policies for many of these families are prejudicial. A family gets $200 a week benefit, and then another $100 for the children, but when Housing New Zealand or Work and Income assesses them for housing, the $100 for the children is counted as income. The reason these kids are facing poverty is that the money set aside by us as taxpayers for the children is being used as a generic family income. It is a tax on the children. The state needs to help put these families back on the ancestral land where they have natural family support. Instead, it spoon-feeds them. They have disconnected the umbilical cord from the family and reconnected it to the state, and the state is going to pay dearly for it. It is fiscally impossible to fix the social problems in Kaitaia.

How are you getting people into houses?

I can move people from a cowshed with no toilet into a three-bedroom 105sq m home. I can give them meat, eggs, milk, fruit, early childhood care, pastoral care and the best addiction support. With no deposit and $250 mortgage payments a week, they will own their house in 17 years. The trust owns the land and gives them a licence to stay in perpetuity as long as they observe our no-alcohol, no-drugs and no-violence policy. If they want a drink, they can go down the road, but we don’t want it brought into the home. It is a model that works for the Far North.

We also need to prioritise keeping people in their homes. I know a family facing a mortgagee sale for the sake of $400 mortgage arrears. We save one family a week from mortgagee sale – Māori houses are being sold up at an alarming rate. When I say to government departments or credit departments of banks, “Here is my card, give it to them so I can help”, their response is that there are privacy issues and they won’t. What is so private about a huge sign on their front lawn saying mortgagee sale?

What is the role, then, for the state in the Far North?

Families need some support, but the support they are getting is not reaching those it is intended for. For example, give these families another $50 a week and Pak’nSave will pick up $30 of that. Are schools meant to be raising children? No, schools are meant to teach children, and parents are meant to feed and care for their children. Parents today lack basic skills. When I was a father at 14, I saw the writing on the wall and knew I had to get out and find work. By using up leftovers, my wife could make food out of nothing for our children. I give families food parcels, but when I visit them two days later, they tell me there is no food left. I can see the food in the box in a corner, but they don’t know how to cook it. They sabotage their children’s wellbeing by bringing in men who beat the shit out of them. They sabotage the plans and budgets we put up for them, because they are so frustrated. I know, I’ve been there.

Ricky Houghton at Waitangi this year. Photo/Clare de Lore

Ricky Houghton at Waitangi this year. Photo/Clare de Lore

Given those obstacles, how do you get your model to work?

You recruit someone within their family to be their natural helper, someone in the family who loves them. Our job is to find those people who will stand up and advocate for those children. But the Government says it doesn’t matter how respected the person is, if they don’t have the right qualifications, it’s not interested. The state should always go to grandparents, but unless you have qualifications, they say you are not good enough and the state will care for your grandchildren, instead. I can’t believe it.

My aunt, whose first language is Māori, is not allowed to teach te reo at the kōhanga reo because she doesn’t have qualifications. When we ran a raffle of smoked fish to raise funds for the local school, it was confiscated because we didn’t get a permit. All my aunties, who used to make cakes for the market to raise funds for their local committee, are not allowed to do it now because they don’t have a certified commercial kitchen. Our ability to help ourselves is being taken away from us. It’s madness.

Did anyone in your family ever step up for you?

There was a policy called Matua Whāngai, which meant when you came out of care, you had to go to extended family. It was probably the best programme Māori have ever benefited from. I was put into the care of my uncle, the late Sir Graham Latimer, and he looked after me even though I kept coming and going because I wanted to keep seeing Rosie. I have read about his work for Māori in Noel Harrison’s book Graham Latimer: A Biography. The aspirations he had for Māori are no different from mine.

Who supports you now?

We have funding and support from a range of sources. Foundation North has just funded us with $2.4 million over three years to kick-start training and employment for youth. We are teaming up with NorthTec [a tertiary education provider], so that when we teach our people budgeting, they get some unit standards. When they are taught parenting, they get some unit standards, so they are ready to start a career pathway a couple of rungs up the ladder, not at the bottom. I have learnt how to play the game and I am going to make sure these people get some qualifications. I am fighting back for them as I did when I was young. I don’t give up.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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