Musings on Homelessness

When Dave and I moved back on Aotearoa New Zealand in 1990 from the San Fransisco Bay area, one reason for returning was that we felt uncomfortable that the US was so wealthy yet had so many homeless people begging on the streets.  That sort of thing didn’t happen in NZ.

That was then.

This is now – a young mother and new born baby living in their car in the first days after birth.

How is that OK?    And how do we respond?

When the first homeless people appeared on Wellington streets I would usually stop and ask if they were hungry; the answer was always yes and we’d go and buy something from the nearest cafe or shop.  It was awkward and embarrassing for both of us but it seemed better than giving money, although who knows.  And even if this is an appropriate response,  there are too many people on the streets now for this approach to be a practicable.  So instead we support the Downtown Community Ministries – who have some wisdom to share on the topic.

Here’s another discussion about giving and homelessness – eloquent angst from New Yorker Courtney Martin about “the best way to decide how — and how much — to give to charity.”

Homelessness in any wealthy country is not OK.  A homeless newborn baby is so not OK that I can’t think of the right words to describe it.

And what are the answers?



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  1. Hello Kate,

    You may be pleased to know along with individuals who feel for homeless people, there are a number of initiatives in Wellington:
    • WCC is about to launch Te Mahana; WCC’s strategy to end homelessness in Wellington by 2020;
    • The Soup Kitchen’s Outreach programme links homeless and hungry men and women on the street with the Wellington agencies who can assist them
    • Making it easy for Wellington people to make donations is WCC’s Alternative Giving Campaign which supports the charities working with homelessness in our city
    • The Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust has a central city facility providing short-term accommodation with support and advocacy for women on their own who find themselves homes and want to turn their lives around. The Trust accepts referrals from 10 specified Wellington social services agencies who provide crises services to women. You can read something of our work here

    Essentially, we
    • Assist the women increase their resilience and independence, and help women to sort out some of the issues that have led to their situation.
    • Ensure psychological and emotional safety at our accommodation,
    • Link the women with essential social services as they turn their lives around
    • Find and then assist the women settle into suitable safe housing.
    • Deal with ‘hidden’ homelessness by providing a facility that intervenes where the probability of homelessness is present.

    The Trust’s view on housing is homelessness is reduced when landlords and local government provide safe, warm, secure and inexpensive accommodation enable vulnerable and homeless people, with the support of social services to sustain long-term tenancies.

    Research shows women most vulnerable to homelessness are those coming out of violent relationships, coming out of hospital or prison, being on low or no income, or has a partner in prison, compounded by one or more other factors such as addiction, physical and mental health impairment and/or a lack of adequate social support systems.
    Homelessness can be prevented by increasing availability of affordability housing, reducing poverty, and increasing household incomes. All of us have a role to play to ensure this.

    Meanwhile, as a Trust, we hope Wellingtonians continue to support existing homeless people they feel for by financially support existing services; and that local and central government agencies will fund a specialist facility, owned by the social services sector for women with “high needs’ providing similar accommodation with 24 hour specialist care. Our current thinking is that women who would stay in this facility, would be an addition to the current referrers to the WHWT accommodation and services.

    Kate, great you have opened up this discussion.

    Diana Jones, Chair, Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust

  2. Hi Kate

    Your blog caught my attention and highlighted real issues, many of which are being addressed in a broader social context through the likes of highly active Community Centres and the like.

    But I resonated with how you felt when approaching the homeless directly on the street. I too do this and wanted to share my approach.

    I thought about how I could help those on the street, one person at a time, and make a real difference albeit for only a moment of their day. I just didn’t want to just give them money as I walked by but also appreciated as a “suit” my presence and approach needed to change.

    So I simply sit down with them…and talk. Ask about their day, have they had a hot meal?, do they need anything?, whats happening for them? etc. I then offer them a little cash so they can buy a meal.

    The outcomes of these interactions have had a profound impact on me (and i hope, briefly for them too) – to a person, I’ve been warmly thanked for just taking time to sit and talk. I get a heartfelt “thank you for talking to me” or something similar. Some tell me stories, others are more guarded but each time the connection, be it for 1 minute or 5, is real and I believe, valued.

    Secondly, as much as I’d like them to buy healthy hot food, i realised my small gesture is a gift that shouldn’t come with “strings attached” so I don’t place a demand on what they do with it.

    The other insight is the number of passer-by’s on the street that pay no attention until a “40-something white guy in a suit” sits down on the street…suddenly everyone seems interested. It’s not my intention to attract attention to me so all the while I focus solely on the person I’m talking to, but its a sad inditement on society that its needs a “circuit breaker” – something out of the norm – to see the plight of the homeless.

    I’ll keep doing this as my way of helping and have realised that besides the gesture of a few dollars, there’s a much, much greater gift here – simple human interaction, a little respect and taking the time to talk, just talk, and for a moment in time, connect.

    Steve Ferguson

  3. Thank you Diana and Steve for these thoughtful and useful responses. I am looking forward to hearing WCC’s strategy and good on you Diana for your work with the Homeless Women’s Trust. And Steve, I think your response of simply sitting and relating human to human is inspiring.

    A couple of people have also pointed out that begging on the street and homelessness are not necessarily the same thing…

    Supporting real relationships, and ensuring the affordability of housing seems to be key and are better alternative to giving money directly – or pretending we just don’t see.

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