First published on Saturday the 4th of June, 2016, this piece comes in at number 11 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
There’s little more embarrassing than being caught out in a lie. Regardless of whether the lie was intentional or the result of bad information, telling the public that something happened, and having a hugely respected organisation go to pains to publicly contradict you is pretty much the definition of a PR nightmare.
“MSD and the Sallies went around and knocked on eight cars that they could find," Prime Minister John Key said on Thursday. "All eight of those people refused to take support either from Sallies or MSD."
Only, it turns out that didn’t exactly happen like that.
“The Salvation Army declined the offer by MSD officials to accompany The Salvation Army as some of these people are very wary of Government officials," the Sallies said in a statement issued on Friday. “[The Prime Minister’s] statements are incorrect.”
“The results of this statement, as well as recent images of homeless people living in dire material hardship disseminated by the media, have deeply upset these people and have put the relationship between them and Salvation Army personnel in jeopardy, weakening the Army's ability to assist them.”
When the Salvation Army has to publicly catch the Prime Minister in an untruth, the shit has well and truly hit the fan.
Homelessness is a hot issue in New Zealand at the moment, as we brace for a cold winter. The number of people living in ‘severe housing deprivation’ (the official term for homelessness) keeps rising, and the media coverage of an issue that strikes right at the heart of our Kiwi belief in a ‘fair go’ just won’t go away.
Which is rather inconvenient for the Government.
First, it tried to deny that there was a problem. The rise in homelessness was “a figment of some people’s imagination,” according to Nick Smith, Minister for Housing. The Minister for Social Housing, Paula Bennett, seemed to be singing from the same songbook on our housing situation: “I certainly wouldn’t call it a crisis.”
Deny, deny, deny. Nothing to see here, folks.
Until, suddenly, there were things to see. The media kicked into gear. Vulnerable people were interviewed, photographs were taken, New Zealanders were shown the dire situations of those with nowhere to call home.
Denial clearly won’t work when Kiwis are hearing the stories of families forced to live in their cars, some with babies as young as 8-weeks-old. Nor when it is revealed that WINZ is forcing homeless people to pay back emergency accommodation fees. Nor when a Marae opens its doors to those living rough and takes in a newborn baby.
Denial was off the table. So the next phase kicked into gear.
It was announced that a $5,000 bribe could be offered to homeless people living in urban centres that could not accommodate them if they just agreed to move somewhere else where there was social housing available. Nevermind that they may have to leave their support networks, jobs, schools, whanau, or iwi. Here was a pithy media-ready solution to make it look like something was being done.
But it wasn’t enough. The media refused to play ball. More stories poured in about the struggles of our most vulnerable families. Te Puea Marae called for the Army to help out. Another Marae started taking people in. The pesky homelessness story just wouldn’t go away.
So it was time for the next level of the offensive: victim-blaming. If it is impossible to deny that a housing crisis is happening, the next best thing to do is to suggest that the homeless are choosing to be homeless. Because life is all about choices, right? If people don’t make the right choices, that’s not the Government’s fault.
And so came the most nefarious turn of all. The choice argument is attractive in many ways. If we believe that people choose to be vulnerable, homeless and impoverished, or that their sad situations are the result of their poor choices, we don’t have to be responsible. We can absolve ourselves. It’s not our problem, we can say. If they choose to live out there in their cars, that’s their problem.
Only, the concept of choice is a red herring at best. The choices that people who are homeless have are very limited. For example, should I stay at home where I’m being abused, or take my chances in my car/on the street/on my friend’s friend’s couch? Should I stay in my car or accept help from WINZ and be put into a motel that I’ll end up in thousands of dollars of debt for? Should I trust this random stranger official Housing New Zealand person who I’ve never met or take my chances?
People who are homeless often have no one they can trust. They have nowhere they can turn. Their lives may have spiralled out of control, they may be battling mental illness, they may be victims of abuse. The choices people make when they’re basically under intense stress and emotional duress are hardly comparable to the choices an average person may make in their relatively comfortable everyday life.
The most important choice in this homelessness debacle is whether we choose to believe that homeless people are the authors of their own destiny, or whether we choose to acknowledge that the situation is deeply concerning. Whether we as a nation choose to help our fellow Kiwis, or to let them suffer.