29 May 2017

Northland proving no refuge from Auckland poverty

6:40 am on 29 May 2017

Auckland families moving to Northland to escape poverty are finding they're worse off than they were in the big smoke, says a leading social service provider.

Family Works Whangarei social workers: Louise Walker, Margie Matthews and Michelle Arkin. Mural by their young clients.

Family Works Whangarei social workers: Louise Walker, Margie Matthews and Michelle Arkin. Mural by their young clients. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Family Works Northern said many were ending up homeless and facing serious, unaddressed mental health issues.

"We see a lot of parents who are trying their very best to make good choices for themselves and their children," said Margie Matthews, Family Works Whangarei manager.

"But when they move north they often can't find jobs or affordable homes. If they are on benefits they often feel stigmatised and judged. Even if they are earning, their minimum wages are not nearly enough to cover their families' costs.

"Some parents are in the invidious position of having to decide: 'Do I pay the power bill or do I buy food?'," said Ms Matthews, whose 10 staff provide services including social work, counselling, and a parenting programme in prison.

"When they move north they often can't find jobs or affordable homes," said Margie Matthews.

"When they move north they often can't find jobs or affordable homes," said Margie Matthews. Photo: 123RF

Housing costs had traditionally been much lower in Northland, but that was no longer the case, she said.

Landords could now get $400 a week for a three-bedroom house, and some were ending tenancies to find new tenants who could pay more.

"What tends to be happening is you get speculators who then give notice to the tenants so they can put the rent up. This has been happening in Auckland, it's certainly happening up here as well."

Another social worker at Family Works, Michelle Arkin, said large groups of desperate families were turning up to view the few rentals available.

"To try and even get a viewing can be challenging," she said.

"The feedback I get from clients is that they can go to [see a house] and there can be 20 or 30 people going for a viewing."

Ms Arkin said landlords were getting choosier about tenants.

"For example, one ad I saw said the ideal tenant was a professional couple working for the DHB. That house was going for $650 a week. They're raising the bar," she said.

The social workers said families were moving into overcrowded houses with friends or family, causing friction and stress.

Some were being put up in motels by Work and Income and some were living in their cars, parked up at night around places like the Town Basin marina.

Ms Matthews said the parents were stressed and their children were deeply unsettled.

"So the kids go into school, they've been displaced; schools are getting overcrowded and can't get the resources to give these kids the care they need.

"Our schools do an amazing job but they are not miracle workers," Ms Matthews said.

A third social worker, Louise Walker, said some of her clients were working people who had been able to make ends meet in the past, but no longer could.

For the first time they were having to go to Work and Income or the Salvation Army for food grants.

They were also having to get their head around rules, finding out belatedly that they had to be enrolled with a budgeting service to get food or extra financial help.

It could take weeks to get the necessary appointments, Ms Walker said.

"People that didn't need budgeting now need it. People that used to make ends meet now aren't."

Mental health services under stress

Ms Matthews said social services in the north were not resourced to cope with the growing number of distressed and needy people, and mental health services were under huge strain.

"We had an example of a young girl who threatened to commit suicide ... my worker rang (the Mental Health Crisis Team) ... they were all out dealing with other young people with very serious mental health issues," she said.

Ms Matthews said it had taken a week of effort by a social worker to get the girl into treatment, and there were a lot of people in that situation who, without support, would simply have given up.

"I think we can't blame the mental health workers. It's about a lack of resources. They're run off their feet."

Director of Mental Health Services Ian McKenzie said the crisis team had been busy, but was continuing to respond as needed.

The social workers said new funding for social services announced in the Budget would not help people fleeing Auckland poverty in the short term because it would not come on stream until next year.

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