Global Problems, Local Solutions: Part 1 New Zealand

According to a recent Yale University study of worldwide homelessness, the “continuation of homelessness, especially among the wealthy countries, reflects denial and the lack of political will to address poverty and many other issues.” This is especially true for the United States, where the problem of homelessness is surrounded by social myths and stigma. Common sense dictates that without a clear understanding of the problem, it is impossible to find a way to resolving it.

We are living in time when social problems are on rise all over the world. While technological progress and globalization are steadily decreasing the need for low-skilled labor in developed countries, community support systems are almost disappearing. While it may sound strange today, only about hundred years ago in small towns in Russia and Northern Europe, it was rare to lock the doors of the houses at night so that stranded travellers who may be stuck at the place due to a broken horse carriage may enter and have a rest. Besides that, in pre-capitalist Europe almost everyone belong to one or several social clubs — such as professional guilds or religious organizations — that took care of those in need.

Capitalism and the advancement of technology brought individualism and the illusion of self-reliance. Large groups of the population began to view their privilege as something that they had earned, while conditions of poverty were viewed as individual failures, despite larger structural social, political, and economic factors at play. As governments adopt more neoliberal principles, there has been an increasing lack of social welfare. But this mentality hasn’t quite permeated all societies: One of the examples of a country concerned about the wellbeing of its citizens is New Zealand, an island nation in the South Pacific.

I decided to start a series of articles about dealing with homelessness in various countries like New Zealand because — unlike Scandinavian countries or Japan, where homelessness is almost nonexistent — New Zealand is built on the same traditions of Anglo-Saxon individualism and, in many ways, is culturally close to the U.S. Still, our views on the importance of social services and the need to help and support underserved are radically different. Like most of the world’s population, New Zealanders consider that in the situation of decreasing communal support, the major role in helping citizens should be played by the government.

The official rate of homelessness in New Zealand is twice as high as the U.S. — 40,000 New Zealanders do not own or rent a residence, a number that comprises almost 1 percent of the population, which makes the island state one of the leaders of the developed countries in this infamous competition. The nation’s government and press are calling for alarm about the unprecedented crisis on the islands. While the situation seems much worse than the U.S., we shouldn’t rush to any conclusions just yet.

Residing on the streets is not just a recent phenomenon; it could be considered man-made, resulting from bad policy. In order to illustrate this thought, and possibly to see some positive experience that can work in California, I decided to write a series of articles about the situation with unhoused people in other countries and how their challenges are seen from there.

People sleeping in parks and public places recently began in New Zealand. The roots of the small island country’s situation is unprecedented in its history and also complex, while in other ways similar to those in the rest of the world. Rent and real estate prices increased twice during last ten years, especially in the capital Auckland. Now, similar to the U.S., those working for minimum wage are forced up to give up many basic necessities, including meals, to afford rent. Auckland does not have enough residential resources for its constantly growing population, and one of their programs helps people to relocate to other parts of the country.

Most of the New Zealand’s homeless population is living in government-provided residential hotels for which government pays at least $NZ140 daily. However, in many articles about homelessness in New Zealand, most of which criticize the government for not doing enough, I never saw anyone asking the philosophical question “Why help the poor?” Apparently, this is self-evident for Kiwis who are alarmed by the appearance of people sleeping in the parks and calling it “a human rights failure” by questioning country’s fulfillment its international human rights obligations.

Instead of complicating the rules of parking for vans and cars where people sleep in an attempt to kick them out, New Zealanders are asking for the creation of special parking places and discounts for them. We in the U.S. are already used to the situation when any attempt of calling for the reason in order to prove economic and political benefits of the social service is automatically labeled liberal or Democratic sentiment. So for the Democrats, it could be encouraging to hear that many people in world not just completely reject the Republican reasoning, they just won’t be able to understand how anyone can think this way.   

New Zealanders recognize the right of every person to have residencies that meet 21st-century living condition criteria. Answering the questions why and how two countries built on the similar traditions and values of the British colonists became so different will require research comparable to the Ph.D. theses. But some of the arguments for their approach are straight and clear, and they are constantly and repeatedly made in the press and scholarly researches. Yet, U.S. Republicans have developed the ability to deny any facts and arguments that do not conform with their worldview.

To those who are cursed with compassion, it has been proven repeatedly that helping homeless people is economically efficient, and the best way to deal with the problem is by preventing homelessness. Social rehabilitation of a person who spent several years on the street is extremely difficult and not always successful. Preventing homelessness saves money in costs for law enforcement, emergency hospitalizations, and human services. It returns many people to the labor market, prevents a health care crisis, and helps keep society ethically and morally healthy, while resolving many other problems.