Apanui Koopu, 44, has been on the waiting list for a state house since 2018. In the past year, he and his whānau have lived in emergency accommodation and been forced to sleep in their car. As he writes here, MSD processes have made their situation worse.
Last November, I became a rough sleeper. It wasn’t just me. My co-parenting partner and my 15-year-old daughter were also left without a roof over their heads.
We had been technically homeless for three months before that date. After struggling to find anything in Tauranga that we could afford to rent, we ended up in temporary accommodation arranged by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD). They put us in a B&B before moving us to a motel.
Then MSD told us they had arranged another motel for us, and stopped payments to the motel we were in. But when we got to the new place, we were told that the paperwork hadn’t been completed by administrators, and we could not move in. I was later told that the questions I had about privacy at the motel were interpreted as declining the terms of accommodation.
So, for two weeks, my co-parenting partner and my daughter and I lived out of a car. It was just the worst feeling you could imagine. We stayed in carparks for short periods so that people thought we were only visiting. We felt shame, shock, anger, and hopelessness. We were emotional wrecks and couldn’t think straight.
As tangata whenua, I felt like an alien in my own homeland.
During this time, we made repeated contact with Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) to ask for help.
Things got worse after MSD decided to treat me and my co-parenting partner as being in a relationship in the nature of marriage. That meant we were entitled to less financial help, because MSD rules assume that people in relationships can live more cheaply together than people not in a relationship.
I co-parent, and my co-parenting partner and I live together. Although our relationship ended when our daughter was around five or six, we remained friends. Last year, we decided for our daughter’s sake to live together as co-parents — to support her wellbeing and education.
But we are not a couple.
However, MSD told us that our payments would be stopped unless we signed a “partner inclusion agreement”. We signed that, out of fear. I now wish we hadn’t. We’ve been waiting for the outcome of a review for six months — an extremely long time considering that MSD stops your payments instantly.
As a result of signing this agreement, we were told we owed more than $40,000 to MSD. This amount was calculated from the time MSD believed that the two of us as co-parenting partners began living in the nature of marriage.
That debt, on top of causing us shock and disbelief, has stopped us from getting a simple $50 food grant when we’ve needed it.
I’ve also applied for Temporary Additional Support and been turned down.
Throughout this process, when we were desperate for help to alleviate our hardship, I felt like we were treated as if we were a number.
I’m lucky that, in December, my father, who lives in a state home, asked me to move back in with him. This means we’re not sleeping rough anymore. It’s overcrowded there, and there’s black mould in the house, but at least we’re around whānau.
I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for my dad.
My whānau name is Koopu, and like others who have been in this position, I have a longer story. I was raised on tribal land in the eastern Bay of Plenty, at Tōrere, Maraenui and Whitianga. My iwi is Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.
I’m the fourth of seven children, and we grew up with an attachment to the sea, to the rivers, and to the forest. We had a strong union with the land as a provider and we never went hungry. Dad was a bushman and I wanted to be one too. After I left high school, I worked in silviculture. We tended pines, from planting to production.
However, the loss of my eldest brother, Daniel, who was also my business partner and best friend, meant that I had to move to the city to find work.
In the city, I had a relationship, and we had one child, my daughter. When baby was born, her mother and I moved out of the city again. I worked in orchards picking fruit, and even went to Australia for a year to work in horticulture. But after our relationship ended, I couldn’t get work. Out of necessity, I applied for the sole parent benefit.
I know I’m not the only one who has faced this process, this hardship, and this racism. I’ve seen people literally begging for a food grant and being denied. I’ve seen so many of my people coming out of WINZ pissed off and angry.
Last year, I also watched my younger brother being made homeless — on Christmas Eve. He was told by MSD that he had to leave the sleepout he was renting because it had no toilet. (The toilet was in the main house.)
Things have to change.
The system of housing people in hotels and motels often leaves them under the control of hotel and motel owners. For instance, when the AIMS Games (an annual school sporting event) comes to Tauranga, the people living in the hotels and motels are forced out of their units with nowhere to go, to make space for other families to enjoy their children’s sports outings.
It seems like making families homeless is becoming an accepted practice among hotel and motel owners in Tauranga, who depend on emergency housing clients to pay their bills in the off-season. No one seems to think about what these sudden upheavals mean for the tamariki, whose educational progress, emotional stability, and personal wellbeing are affected.
The rules on relationships in the welfare system need to be updated. You should be allowed to co-parent, or live with whānau, without being treated as being in a relationship in the nature of marriage.
The processes are too slow and there is no accountability for decisions that can drive already vulnerable people into deeper suffering and hardship.
And the government needs to pay attention to the relationships between administrators and the people receiving the benefit — a group of people that often share the same history, treatment, and ethnic background. These are people who often experience shame and embarrassment and may not want to come forward to speak openly about their mistreatment.
Administrators have a duty to protect beneficiaries and not to force them into hardship. From what I’ve seen and experienced, MSD no longer has the beneficiaries’ best interests at heart — if it ever did.
Māori also need to have the right to self-determination and to administer our own affairs under Te Tiriti. Racism today is sometimes hidden or subtle, but it still needs to be confronted.
Māori are some of the worst affected following the pandemic and in our growing housing crisis. Among the very worst off are our babies and our old people.
Transforming our welfare system would be just a start towards addressing these broader problems.
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