Publish Date:

26 July 2022

Homelessness pathways in Aotearoa New Zealand

It is well-understood, both internationally and in Aotearoa, that there are a number of contributing factors that raise the risk of someone experiencing homelessness. But there are still many misconceptions about which specific factors are having the greatest impact on the increase in homelessness in New Zealand.

Fortunately, an important piece of research from Carol McMinn, Strategic Analyst for the Peoples Project in Hamilton, has helped advance our understanding. Her PhD thesis Lost Points of Intervention in Pathways to Single Adult Homelessness in Hamilton, New Zealand is based on questionnaires and interviews with 100 people engaged with a homeless program in Hamilton.

The core focus of this research is on single adults (18 years or over), with participants all interviewed in 2019 before Covid hit. Although everyone’s circumstances were unique, results revealed a series of commonly occurring disruptive events throughout participants’ lives, starting for some as early as 6 years old. To quote directly:

Although everyone’s circumstances were unique, results revealed a series of commonly occurring disruptive events throughout participants’ lifetimes. A very high prevalence of adverse childhood events had resulted in an early exit from home for most participants, and time spent in state care. Instability in childhood had led to disruption, or exclusion, from schooling. Early disruption of social networks resulted in participants being isolated from natural familial and kinship support at critical points. Problematic substance use and mental health issues were common, often resulting in early institutionalization. These health and wellbeing issues had lifelong effects.

Much of what is described here will be familiar to those who work with people experiencing homelessness. The data highlights the extent to which participants endured childhood instability and lost schooling. Responses showed:

    1. 100% of participants left school early by 15 years-old
    2. 50% had been expelled or suspended from school, and 71% were truant
    3. 68% ran away from home before the age of 16
    4. 63% had been a victim of domestic violence
    5. 47% had been placed in state-imposed care (ie foster home).

As adults, the research found that structural issues exacerbated circumstances for people. Participants:

    1. lacked access to safe, affordable single-person private rental and public housing and experienced discrimination in their efforts to find housing
    2. had constrained incomes, most receiving welfare support, which further limited housing options in time of crisis
    3. had high debt, particularly owed to government departments.

But the research went beyond exploring causes and effects, and also asked participants to identify the points at which they believe intervention could have helped them. These findings have particularly important implications for policy responses to homelessness.

Family violence prevention was flagged as a major prevention opportunity, along with detecting, and supporting those who have survived adverse childhood events (ACEs):

Despite having very divergent experiences, participants signalled that early intervention for victims of ACEs is important. Most advocated for a discreet, safe mechanism for survivors, whether young or old, to be able to disclose and discuss their experiences, if desired. These events needed to be safely outed from their hiding place under the rug of familial suppression. Similarly, participants cautioned against poor and sometimes unsafe out of home placements by child protection services, as this had contributed to participant traumatisation in many cases. The intergenerational effects of ACEs were also evident amongst participant accounts. Interventions that help heal the whole family were therefore advocated in order to prevent the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

Additional measures participants proposed to prevent formerly homeless individuals from returning to homelessness include:

    1. access to a home (not a room), with comprehensive support to help people maintain this tenancy
    2. social sector agencies to adopt a trauma-informed understanding when supporting people
    3. programs and policies which increase people’s access to income.

On that final point, participants all agreed on the importance of working. Most had worked before and wanted to again. They believed it would not only improve their financial stability but give them a purpose and make it easier to access the rental market as they recognise that landlords prioritise tenants who have jobs.

For those with the time, the full thesis is worth reading. We are also planning to hold a webinar with Carol McMinn to discuss her findings in September. If you wish to attend, please follow the link to register.