Cross-Examination: Helping the Homeless?
Content Contributor, Meg Williams
With more and more people taking refuge in their family members’ garages, their cars, and on the streets in nooks between buildings or underneath overhanging shelters of buildings, homelessness is one of the more visible aspects of the current housing crisis. Yet at the same time, it is extremely difficult to quantify just how bad the issue has become. One of the latest studies conducted by the University of Otago in 2013 said that at least 1 in every 100 New Zealanders were “severely housing deprived.” This figure amounted to about 41,705 people, and was a substantial increase from a similar study done in 2006 which showed that 1 in every 120 New Zealanders were homeless. The study found that the problem was not simply worsening in numbers, but also in proportion of the population.
The term “homeless”, as of 2009, is defined as “having no other options to acquire safe and secure housing,” and includes the following:
- being without shelter (no shelter or improvised shelter—living on the street or in shacks or cars)
- living in temporary accommodation (overnight accommodation in a non-private facility not intended for long-term living, women’s refuge, hostels for the homeless, transitional accommodation, staying long term in motor camps or boarding houses)
- sharing accommodation (temporary accommodation through sharing someone else’s private home)
- uninhabitable housing (resorting to dilapidated dwellings for shelter).
Housing has been recognised by many as a basic human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themselves] and of [their] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is very similar; it includes housing in the right to an adequate standard of living. In 1987, the Human Rights Commission also made a submission to the Royal Commission on Social Policy on the issue of homelessness, and recognised housing as a basic human right with a recommendation that “the achievement of other human rights is often contingent upon that right being met.”
The Human Rights Commission’s stance on housing as a human right remains unchanged in 2016: “As a State party to the international human rights treaties that protect the human right to adequate housing, the New Zealand Government (both local and central) has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil this right… It must do that or it will be in breach of its obligations.” According to the Human Rights Commission, the right to adequate housing goes beyond simply having a roof over one’s head. As a point of reference, the United Nations has defined seven standardswhich must be met in order for housing to be considered “adequate”:
- Security of tenure: Residents should be protected against forced eviction, harassment and other threats including predatory redevelopment and displacement.
- Habitability: Housing must provide residents with adequate space that protects them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, and other threats to health, structural hazards, and disease.
- Accessibility: Housing must be accessible to all, and disadvantaged and vulnerable groups—including the disabled—must be accorded full access to housing resources.
- Affordability: Housing costs should be at such a level so as not to compromise the attainment of other basic needs. For example, people should not have to choose between paying rent and buying food.
- Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: Housing must provide access to services essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition. This includes water and sanitation, power and other essential utilities.
- Location: Housing should not be built on polluted sites or in immediate proximity to pollution sources that threaten the right to health of residents. The physical safety of residents must likewise be guaranteed. Additionally housing must be in a location which allows access to employment, health-care services, schools, child care centres, and other social facilities.
- Cultural Adequacy: Housing and housing policies must guarantee the expression of cultural identity and diversity, including the preservation of cultural landmarks and institutions. Redevelopment or modernisation programs must ensure that the cultural significance of housing and communities is not sacrificed.
Despite the consensus of various human rights groups, both international and local, there still seems to be some reluctance at the Parliamentary level to acknowledge housing as a fundamental human right. Just 3 years after the Human Rights Commission made the aforementioned submission to the Royal Commission on Social Policy, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act was enacted without the inclusion of housing as a human right. Many members of Government sought to include economic and social rights, as preserved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to housing, education and public health care. The Justice and Law Reform Committee also supported the inclusion of these rights, but the Government seemed to apprehend that the inclusion of such economic and social rights would be “unmanageable”, as they were more political matters than judicial.
It was the view of the Human Rights Commission in 1987 that “consideration should be given to the enactment of an amendment to the Housing Corporation Act 1974, placing the Housing Corporation under a statutory obligation to house the homeless.” The Commission also identified some of the arguments it had encountered against a statutory duty on the Housing Corporation, now named Housing New Zealand, to house the homeless. A number of people expressed fears that some might abuse the system by making themselves homeless in order to jump the Housing Corporation rental queue. To this, the Human Rights Commission responded by saying that “it is not a valid argument to say that the Housing Corporation should not be required to make provision for those in real need, simply because a few people might abuse the system.”
Another argument, and one that can often be heard in contemporary discussions about housing and homelessness, is that the cost will be too high. To this argument, the Human Rights Commission pointed about that in the 1960s the Swedish Government completely eliminated their housing shortage by introducing a plan called the Million Programme. This was a plan by the Swedish Social Democratic Party to build 1 million new state homes in 10 years, responding to the housing shortage they were experiencing after World War II with the aim of making sure everyone could have a new home at an affordable price. While admitting that the Human Rights Commission did not have expertise in the field of economics, they drew on “the Swedish experience” to show that it is possible to fix a housing shortage without it being detrimental to the economy: “The Swedish Government’s housing policy is tied closely to its economic and social welfare policies. During periods of high unemployment they increase their state house building programme, thus providing both more homes and more jobs. This type of policy would greatly help New Zealand meet existing housing needs, as well as solving other social problems. The Swedish experience prices that creative social and economic policies working hand in glove can be feasible and effective.”
The Human Rights Commission, in this 1987 submission to the Royal Commission on Social Policy, thus recommended that the Government at the time initiate through the Housing Corporation a planning and development programme “to ensure that no New Zealander is homeless by the year 2000.” [x_blockquote type="left"]Yet, here we are 16 years later with at least 41,705 New Zealanders without a home.[/x_blockquote]
The most common factors contributing to homelessness are poverty, unemployment, mental health issues, emotional trauma, addictions, unaffordable accommodation, lack of support following release from prison, and discrimination by landlords. The National government claims that they are addressing the homelessness issue in a number of ways, though none of these claims seem to combat the factors contributing to homelessness or include plans to build a large number of state homes. Housing New Zealand plans only to build 2,000 homes over the next 2 years. Instead, their government’s plan for addressing homelessness includes grants of $5,000 to give to 150 families in Auckland, who are either in social housing or without a home at all, to encourage them to move out of Auckland to more affordable regions. On top of this, Minister for Social Housing Paula Bennett announced that $41 million would go toward building emergency housing for the homeless.
These measures may not seem as ambitious as Sweden’s Million Programme, but there are hopes that the emergency housing will provide a short term solution for those who are at crisis point and need shelter right away. Coupled with the fact that at the beginning of 2015, Prime Minister John Key announced that the Government would be selling off state housing—quite the opposite of what the Human Rights Commission has recommended—it seems as though New Zealanders’ fundamental right to housing remains unfulfilled as legislative steps to address the homelessness crisis remain inadequate and ineffective.
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 Rosanna Price “One in 100 Kiwis homeless, new study shows numbers quickly rising” (3 June 2016) Stuff <www.stuff.co.nz/national/80719962/One-in-100-Kiwis-homeless-new-study-shows-numbers-quickly-rising>
 Paul Bellamy Homelessness in New Zealand (Parliamentary Library, 14/02, July 2014).
 The United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, art.25.
 UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993, p. 3.
 Human Rights Commission Paper Presented to the Royal Commission on Social Policy - Homelessness (25 November 1987).
 Human Rights Commission The Human Right to Adequate Housing in New Zealand (Brochure).
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 G Palmer New Zealand’s Constitution in Crisis (McIndoe, Dunedin, 1992) at 57.
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