Our Hidden Homeless: Whare to the Whenua project helps Northlanders into home ownership

Northland has the worst rates of severe housing deprivation in the country. In the first of the Northern Advocate’s Hidden Homeless series, reporter Jenny Ling talks to locals with a practical solution.

Northlanders living in cars and tents, dads who have lost jobs because of Covid-19 and can’t afford to pay the rent, former prisoners who need a second chance and couch-surfing grandmothers with nowhere to call home.

These are some of the people Whakamanamai Whānau Trust are desperately trying to help by providing portable cabins that can be placed on Māori land under a new “rent-to-bless” scheme.

So far 17 portacoms have been given to vulnerable individuals and families under the Kaikohe-based trust’s Whare to the Whenua project.

It’s a practical solution to Northland’s homelessness problem – the region has the highest rates in the country – and offers the opportunity of home ownership for those who have fallen through the cracks.

Rhonda Zielinski, who is running the scheme with trust member Doug Healey, said the need is “huge”.

There is a severe lack of rental properties in the region and too many barriers preventing people from getting into warm, dry homes, she said.

“It’s everywhere.

“We see single women and men who are struggling, as they’re a low priority for Winz who focus on families. If you’re single, you’re way down in the pecking order.

“We also see people with children who still can’t get housing.

“People are relocating from Auckland, some are struggling with addiction, there are several grandmothers… the need is huge.

“The trouble is the Government makes it too complicated. The intention is good, but bureaucracy gets in the way.”

Now the trust has teamed up with the Northern Advocate>, The Hits Northland and Solomon Group, a Māori Private Training Establishment delivering education, youth support and employment services, in a campaign to furnish these cabins.

With your help, we aim to fit out 10 portacoms with an equal number of quality beds, couches, chairs, bedside tables and dressing tables to transform the buildings into homes.

The Whare to the Whenua scheme came about after Zielinski – a nurse and business owner – was working at a Covid-19 testing station in Kaikohe where campervans were parked as a Government solution to house the homeless during and after lockdown.

“People were asking about them,” she said.

“We started to think what happens when the campervans had to go back. I saw an ad for portacoms and thought I’d investigate that.”

Zielinski and fellow Kaikohe resident Jane Beamsley – who runs the Whakaoranga Whānau Recovery Hubaddiction support clinic – bought the first cabin for a man who was living in a car with his 10-year-old daughter.

Though the man had no home, he had whenua so that’s where his cabin was located.

Since then the Whakamanamai Whānau Trust, along with several directors of other local organisations, have chipped in and bought another 12 portable cabins.

A further five are on short term rent as their funds have run dry.

They have been delivered to individuals and families mostly in and around Kaikohe, but also in Kaitaia, Gisborne and Whanganui.

People who get the 6m x 3m cabins pay what they can afford each week and no deposit is required – only four weeks rent in advance.

Most people are comfortable paying $200 a week, which means they can pay off the $25,000 interest-free cabin in just over two years.

The cabins are given to the client once the cost of the building is paid off.

Zielinski said the scheme works on the basis of mutual honesty and trust and is about removing barriers for people who can’t get financing from banks or other lenders.

Though there are no strict criteria, recipients must agree to get help from local services to address any underlying issues, which include drug and alcohol rehabilitation, anger management and budgeting.

“Home ownership can transform lives, but we can’t just deal with the housing, we have to give wrap-around services,” Zielinski said.

“These people have come off being dependent. Sometimes at the first little struggle you want to throw the towel in, and you can’t do that when you own your own home.”

There are now 100 people on the waiting list for portacoms.

Solomon Group chief executive Lynette Donohoe said her organisation is focused on Northland because that’s where the need is greater.

“The gap is great up there.

“In our daily work what we’re coming up against are those wanting to participate in services to better their circumstances and become independent, but the barrier to do that is they’re homeless or their housing is such that they can’t participate fully.

“The community have got the momentum to come up with a solution to help themselves.

“We just want to get on and help with a practical solution.”

Statistics New Zealand defines homelessness as a living situation where people are sleeping rough or living in a car, living in temporary or emergency accommodation, or living in dilapidated dwellings or those not intended for human habitation, like garages.

Severe housing deprivation is another term for those living in inadequate housing.

New research shows Northland has the highest rates of severe housing deprivation in the country, followed by Gisborne and Auckland.

The Severe Housing Deprivation in Aotearoa New Zealand report, released in July, shows 2646 people are severely housing deprived in Northland.

That’s 1.5 per cent of the population.

The report, by researchers from the University of Otago’s He Kāinga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme, is based on 2018 Census data and data from emergency and transitional housing providers.

Otago University public health researcher Kate Amore said conditions had likely deteriorated since 2018, especially because of Covid-19.

“People have lost their jobs, and people who were already vulnerable before Covid, that puts them at risk of homelessness and housing deprivation,” she said.

Northland’s housing woes were highlighted at a Northland Housing Forum Hui in Whangārei last year where experts spoke of people living in carports, garages, lean-tos, old cars and derelict houses.

Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime said people find themselves in need of accommodation for a multitude of reasons.

“They might have just come out of prison, they might be in addiction or have relationship problems, or the landlord has sold their house.”

Prime said there is simply not enough housing in the region.

“It’s the result of a housing crisis that we have in Northland and across all of New Zealand. It’s not a new issue. It’s one that we’re all aware of and all trying to find solutions for.

“There’s no rental accommodation available. I was talking to a real estate agency in Kerikeri who said they had 100 applicants for one rental property.

“The next issue we have is options for papakainga and home ownership that meet the needs of Northlanders [and] reflects their income.”

Prime said the rent-to-bless scheme was removing barriers to housing.

“What Rhonda and Doug are doing [is] empowering individuals and whānau.

“You can’t underestimate how empowering having that level of independence and ownership is for someone – as humble as living in a portacom might be.”

A practical housing solution

When Victor Smith started his Space King portable building company in Auckland five years ago, he didn’t expect he’d be helping Northland’s homeless.

His portacoms are usually hired or bought as offices and workshops, ablution blocks and lunchrooms.

But the business owner, who is originally from Waipū, is more than happy to deliver his product to the north to house people struggling to find accommodation.

Having a house transforms them, he said.

“I have been delivering them myself so I’ve seen the before and afters,” Smith said.

“I’ve seen what people have had to struggle with and have visited their homes afterwards and have seen such a change in their demeanour.

“They were sad, down and out, they had no help or no one to look after them. They were really facing the struggles on their own.

“What Rhonda and Doug are doing, they took them on board, they took their loneliness on board, they took their situation and got stuck in and helped them out.”

Manufactured in Silverdale, the buildings are made with a galvanised steel chassis, 18mm plywood flooring, and aluminium windows and ranch sliders.

They have a panel door with a lock and key, are fitted with vinyl or carpet, and are certified electrical.

“They are a great thing for someone living in a tent, on the streets or in a container,” Smith said.

“It gives them somewhere warm to live in, a place they can call home.

“If you’re living in tent or container that’s no good. Something needs to change.”

Monday: Eric Monk finally has a place to call home

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