Q&A | Victoria Hearn: Lifewise want to end youth homelessness in Auckland

Once a year, Lifewise invites business and community leaders to participate in the Big Sleepout, a fundraiser evening to raise awareness of the vital social services they provide in Auckland, New Zealand. The event always draws some amazing participants, who ‘sleep rough’ for the night to raise funds and awareness for the organisation. The donations are critical to helping Lifewise tackle issues like homelessness, as they receive no government funding.

The 2017 Big Sleepout takes place on July 6. Funds raised will go towards ending youth homelessness, which is a huge issue in New Zealand. Victoria Hearn leads the Service Design and Development of Lifewise’s Youth Housing service, and explains more about why the event is so necessary to Sarah.

How did you come to work with Lifewise? What is your role there?
My background is in social work and I started working with Lifewise three years ago as part of the Crisis Response and Housing team. My role was supporting people who were homeless into accommodation and working with them to address some of the issues that had led to them becoming homeless. One of the real challenges was finding accommodation for young people. At the time young people were exited from state care once they turned 17, yet they couldn’t sign a tenancy agreement until they were 18. It also become apparent that young people needed accommodation that was age-appropriate and aligned with their developmental needs. We knew that we needed a different response for our young people, and that’s what I began to focus on.

“Young people need a place where they can be themselves, but they also need places where they can develop healthy attitudes to their own wellbeing.”

In 2015, I was involved in setting up our first youth housing project in West Auckland. We turned four two-bedroom units into a safe and supportive place for young people who were homeless or at risk of being homeless. Young people have their own tenancies and we have youth workers on-site during the day to support people with the goals that they have set themselves. This might be support with finding employment, getting back into education, or re-connecting with whanau – as well as looking for permanent accommodation. Young people need a place where they can be themselves, but they also need places where they can develop healthy attitudes to their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others, and that’s what we provide.

It’s a place where they can think positively about their education, health, relationships, sexual identity, future employment, the community they live in, and their role in that community. Working at our youth houses has been one of the best jobs ever. It’s a real privilege to be part of these young people’s lives and celebrate their successes as well as being there for the challenging times. I never can quite put into words the feeling of seeing someone grow in confidence and take charge of their future – it’s awesome.

This year I was privileged to receive the Vodafone World of Difference award, which has enabled me to step back from my frontline role and focus on service design and development; looking at how we can create more innovative accommodation and support models that meet the needs of young people experiencing homelessness. Because, what we know is that young people need options, and one particular set-up isn’t going to work for everyone. Part of my work involves talking with young people with lived experience and finding out from them what types of services they want and how they can access services, so that we can then develop our responses.

Why do you believe Lifewise is an important service?
The service we offer is vital because in Auckland there are so few options for a young person who finds themselves homeless to get support. As far as we are aware, there are only 16 beds between us and another service that offer young people transitional accommodation whilst working to find them permanent homes. These are places that youth can stay for a few months at a time, sometimes more, whilst staff work alongside them – so once they are full, they can be full for months on end. In Auckland, if you are under 18, there is NO emergency accommodation.

“It’s unacceptable that community organisations like ours are the ones expected to fix this problem without government support and funding.”

There is absolutely nowhere for them to go whilst they wait to get into our transitional accommodational, so they’re remaining on the streets where they are incredibly vulnerable. This is the reason I’m working on developing other models of accommodation – so that young people have options. It’s unacceptable that young people have no option but to sleep on our streets, and it’s unacceptable that community organisations like ours are the ones expected to fix this problem without government support and funding.

You’ve contributed to a number of studies regarding homelessness and sleeping rough in Auckland. What are some of the key findings?
Whilst everyone’s experience is different, we found that a majority of people had a history of suffering, and that this was a common pathway to life on the streets. Many people have shared stories of physical violence, emotional abuse and neglect when they were younger. These experiences are often, but not always, at the hands of close family members who were ultimately responsible for their care. It seems that, for some, the vulnerabilities of life on the streets are preferable to the vulnerabilities of life at home and offered a way to reclaim their independence.

Which brings us to the concept of ‘choice’ and just how complex it is when you unpack it. We often hear the general public make statements about people ‘choosing’ to be homeless, however it’s not quite as simple as that. Whilst many rough sleepers themselves stated they made a choice to live on the street, when you got further into it, it was because they were stuck between a rock and hard place, with no alternative options. When being on the street is the best ‘choice’ of the ones available to you – then I think we have to think about that differently.

“For some, the vulnerabilities of life on the streets are preferable to the vulnerabilities of life at home.”

Other key issues are personal safety for those who are sleeping rough, as well as an understanding of just how strong street-based social networks are. These relationships offer practical, financial and emotional support. In a world where people feel they are being judged, social networks offer some reprieve. Moreover, for those who are experiencing significant dislocation from family and other loved ones, a ‘street family’ offers a very viable and real alternative.

Lastly, we’ve heard very clearly that there are too many barriers to accessing support service for people who are experiencing homelessness. This is what we are working to change. Many people find social services difficult to navigate due to them not being available at the times that they need them, or they don’t have the appropriate documentation to facilitate access to the available services. Most people who are living on the streets do not possess formal documents such as birth certificates, driving licenses or passports, and many do not have bank accounts. As service providers, we also need to have a more integrated and collaborative response. This can’t be emphasised enough, and this is one of my key focusses.

Did any of the findings particularly surprise you, or change your thinking on homelessness and sleeping rough, and how people end up in such situations?
I think the main one was around choice. As I said, there are assumptions made that people choose to be homeless and it’s something that I’ve always strongly disagreed with. To hear some people who were homeless describe it as their choice was a real shock. But again, if you listen to this stories at length, it’s actually not about choice, but about a lack of choices. The stories all point to the same thing: homelessness isn’t the problem, homelessness is the result of a whole lot of other problems.

How do you think city councils, and the New Zealand government should respond to the issue of homelessness? What, in your view, constitutes a real solution?
A real solution will be when the NZ government acknowledges that homelessness IS an issue in New Zealand. At present we have no Minister for homelessness, no specific policy documents around homelessness and no National Strategy to end homelessness. Consequently this means that there’s limited – or no – funding for community organisations providing vital services. It’s incredibly difficult to make long-term, effective, strategic plans with short-term unstable funding.

“We have no Minister for homelessness, no specific policy documents around homelessness and no National Strategy to end homelessness.”

The most cost-effective way to end homelessness for people is to stop it before it begins with effective prevention. Homeless people travel a predictable path into homelessness. On their way into homelessness, every single person comes into contact with a person, programme or system that could prevent their homelessness. We need to be promoting and implementing early intervention strategies and programmes.

The cost of having people cycle through our emergency departments, justice system and mental health services because they don’t have stable accommodation outweighs the cost of providing these same people with a safe place that they can call home.

What were you doing before working with Lifewise?
Before Lifewise I worked for the Auckland City Mission. Prior to that I spent eight years managing pubs and bars here in NZ, and in London. I loved the work because I had always been a ‘people person’ and loved talking to people from such diverse backgrounds. Over the years things started to change for me though – I started to see different things that concerned me more than running the business.  The people that stayed in the pub all night when they had a partner and children at home, people getting cash out from the bar and putting it in the pokies until their card declined and they were left with nothing. Fights fuelled by alcohol.

In one particular bar I used to go out into the carpark at 8pm at night and get kids out of cars, bringing them inside, still in their school uniform, and ask them to point out their parent so I could tell them to go home. I realised I was on the wrong side of the bar. I was contributing to this, and I didn’t want to be. I returned to New Zealand and went back to university and graduated with Honours in Social Work in 2013.

I had always wanted to pursue a career in social work, however my mum had advised me against when I was younger saying that I would take all the issues home – she was right! I had also dropped out of high school at 16 and didn’t believe I had it in me to attend university, but I was determined to create change, and I knew this was something I had to do – so I did.

2017 Big Sleepout participants include: Michael Marr, CE of Advanced Security à; Richie Hardcore; Sarah Trotman ONZM; Jared Johnstone (Nomad restaurant); Antony Welton (Vodafone’s HR Director); Katie Noble (MD, Allied Medical); Paul Bull (CEO, Signature Homes); Barrie Sheers (MD, Microsoft NZ); Phil Goff (Mayor of Auckland); Miranda Burdon (CEO, Global Women); Chlöe Swarbrick; Lily McManus; Damaris Coulter (Coco’s Cantina); Dani Fennessy (Mai FM). View a full list of teams.

To donate directly to Lifewise, visit www.bigsleepout.org.nz.