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Emergency housing: the measure of us all

Emergency housing: the measure of us all

What kind of monster have we become, that we punish people who cannot put a roof over their heads? We all know the measure of a humane society is its ability to care for its most vulnerable members. And yet when it comes to emergency housing, we have turned away.

We like to think the most vulnerable among us are the innocents: small children and the very old. People it is easy to feel sympathy for. But the most vulnerable also include people messed up by domestic violence, mental illness, physical illness, drugs, unemployment, intergenerational failure and, running through it all, the corrosive effects of poverty. And their children. People so incapacitated by their circumstances they cannot find a place to spend the night.

So they turn to the state. But their claims for help are often, perhaps almost always, the most complex and difficult the state is asked to address. That makes them even more vulnerable, because it makes them less able to generate sympathy. So what does the state – that’s us, remember – do? It takes advantage of their desperate weakness to load them up with debt. We send them to motels, and require them to pay back the cost. At $1000 or more a week, we make them, in all likelihood, permanently destitute.

Why have the relevant ministers not already sat down, white-faced with shame, to work out how to stop this happening and to undo the harm it has already caused by wiping the debts?

How is the government not appalled at itself for letting this happen? Why have the relevant ministers not already sat down, white-faced with shame, to work out how to stop this happening and to undo the harm it has already caused by wiping the debts?

The Prime Minister said this week he did not think most New Zealanders believe those debts should be wiped. Why is that even relevant? The popular response is not always the right one. The government should do what’s right, regardless of what’s popular.

But is the PM right? Do we no longer care, or care enough, about those vulnerable people? The opposition parties have not been able to rise up on a great tide of public outrage – does that prove the tide does not exist?

If this is true, what terrible point as a society have we come to?

It is not a complicated issue. It does not require that all the problems with housing supply in New Zealand be fixed before it can be resolved. It is very simple: there are some people who need a roof over their heads tonight, and they have the right to expect society will help them find it. They have the right not to be punished for their vulnerability.

What are we waiting for? Will nothing change until some nice middle-class white person is found living in their car?

Read more: Emergency housing: Welcome to Domicide City.

Politics