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Homelessness is heartlessness

Exactly who coined the phrase “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” is apparently in dispute, but its essential truth is widely accepted.

Despite this, and all the evidence in plain sight, many New Zealanders seem to struggle with the idea that our country is coming up well short in this regard – and has been for well over a decade.

Homelessness – ground zero of our failure as a humane nation – is an unavoidable reality in central Auckland. For several years now, walking down Queen St at certain times of day involves literally stepping over rough sleepers and their meagre collections of blankets and other belongings.

The issue is now so ubiquitous that, paradoxically, it’s pretty much invisible in the not-so-Super City; it’s the human equivalent of proliferating potholes on urban streets.

And given economic and demographic trends, it’ll be coming to a street near you soon enough.

When I first began encountering these poor huddled masses, I’d reflexively fish about in my pockets for loose change, in an effort to make myself – and possibly them – feel a little better for a brief moment.

Sadly, in my experience anyway, it doesn’t take much exposure to the homeless for one’s initial compassion to give way to irritation. Can’t they find somewhere else to go that doesn’t inconvenience me? And why should I be doling out my hard-earned cash when that’s what I pay my taxes for?

The transformation of Rotorua’s “Golden Mile” to “MSD Mile”, where motels that formerly catered to tourists have devolved into “emergency housing”, is another high profile example of an issue that is evidently also impacting Wairarapa – even if it largely remains tucked out of sight in the region.

The recent Times-Age stories about Masterton retailers alarmed by a rough sleeper, and a Featherston woman reduced to living in a tent, wouldn’t merit a mention in newspapers further north.

Give it a year or two, and such situations are unlikely to be considered ‘news’ here, either – especially if “community housing” provider Trust House forges ahead with its notified intention to hike the rents of 478 households in its care by an average of 60 per cent.

It beggars belief that an organisation describing its “core purpose” as “enhancing the lives of people in our communities” would contemplate such increases at the best of times, let alone during an ongoing housing shortage.

To actually action them during the current cost of living crisis constitutes a profound moral and fiscal failure.

On the face of it, furthermore, the reason given for the outrageous, unconscionable increases – to ensure funds are available for repairs, maintenance, renovation and future development – merely suggests the trust is already failing in its mission by providing substandard housing to vulnerable community members.

The advice of the trust’s chief executive for affected tenants to see if the Ministry of Social Development can help appears to typify various agencies’ pass-the-parcel attitude to the issue.

They’re not parcels, they’re people, and the invidious idea that fulfilling this basic human need is somebody else’s problem is one that diminishes us all.

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