Concerns grow for Queenstown's 'working homeless'

by Kim Bowden and Lauren Pattemore - Mar 15, 2023

The manager of Happiness House says she’s seeing more “long-term locals” victims of housing insecurity. Down the road, the manager of Queenstown's Citizens Advice Bureau agrees: "We're not talking about people who are here for a short-term, fun party." They're both hearing of people living in cars, in tents and on the brink, with winter fast approaching. But who's stepping up to provide some practical, quick fixes?

Luis Garcias is one of Queenstown’s “working homeless”, an ever-growing demographic that, with winter coming, have social service providers on edge.

He’s living in his car, while holding down a full-time job.

During the work week, he’s parked up outside his workplace in the central business district, which is “a bit uncomfortable”.

The rest of his time he splits between the 12 Mile Delta and Kingston campgrounds.

He says the biggest problem is finding a place to shower – he tries to either shower at friends’ houses or at the gym. However, the gym closes at 9pm and he works late nights. 

He came to New Zealand in 2019 travelling, then stayed because of Covid-19 and also because he really loves it here and doesn’t want to leave.

Queenstown’s his favourite place in the country, but he also needs to stay here because his job provides sponsorship for his visa. Otherwise, he reckons he’d move.

“I don’t want to complain. It’s alright now, when the weather is nice, I can pretend I’m on a summer holiday.” 

But he’s also looking ahead. 

“I’m so worried about winter, it’ll be so cold, I can’t stay here.” 

Meanwhile, another camper at 12 Mile Delta is advertising for an alternative spot to pitch his tent. Wood burning stoves aren't allowed at the public campground, and he reckons he won't survive winter without one.

At the moment, he's just relying on "the dog and a hot water bottle".

He says he works from 7am until 5pm five days a week, and he just needs a 20-metre-square patch of land to rent.

'We need practical solutions that are short term that can help - some kind of shelter, where working people can go and get a hot shower, in a warm room and maybe some hot food.'

Quick fixes needed now

Tracy Pool, the manager at Queenstown’s Citizens Advice Bureau, is dubbing the growing number of people she’s hearing about in situations similar to these as “the working homeless”.

With other social service providers, she's trying to put some numbers to it, to better understand the size of the problem.

“These aren't people that are just here for a lifestyle choice. They are in this situation because there's not a lot they can do about it because their options are extremely limited.”

She’s calling for strong leadership to provide some practical, quick fixes to help look after people now.

“Our biggest concern is we’re going into winter and as it gets cold, how is that going to be tenable? Where’s the answer for those people?

“If we had a marae in the area, that would be perfect, people could sleep overnight, have a shower and get some hot food at least once in a blue moon. 

“Maybe it’s a local church group, maybe it’s the local rugby grounds because they have showers.

“We’ve got to think outside the box.”

There’s some game-changing bigger picture stuff happening or being discussed – inclusionary zoning, regulation of short-term accommodation like Airbnb, and the work of the Queenstown housing trust among them – but she wants decision makers to find more immediate solutions alongside these to keep people safe.

“There’s a lot of politics around Airbnb and rentals and all of that kind of stuff - We don't care. I don't care about their politics. What I do care about is if somebody died in a car over winter, and we saw it coming and then it happened.

"We need practical solutions that are short term that can help - some kind of shelter, where working people can go and get a hot shower, in a warm room and maybe some hot food.

"And we need somebody to show leadership and to actually do that."

'It's very stressful'

Happiness House manager Léna Boss says she's seeing more “long-term locals” victims of housing insecurity.

Happiness House manager Léna Boss says she’s used to seeing working holiday visa holders living out of the back of a car.

But she knows the adventure will lose its shine as winter approaches.

She says she’s also seeing more “long-term locals” victims of housing insecurity.

“We had just last week a few families who have been told that their house is being sold and they will probably have to leave their house and they don’t have anywhere to go. The situation is so bad in Queenstown that there is no guarantee they can find something else, especially for families where there are three or more.”

She sees the effects insecure housing has on the clients Happiness House supports.

“It’s very stressful…most of them, where they’re staying, there’s maybe a toilet but, you know, no hygiene facilities, like no shower. And, if you think about this, you have to go to work the next day and you might not have had a shower…or a proper rest, a good night’s sleep.”

There's growing concerns for people's mental health - not knowing where you'll be from one day to the next impacts on a person's ability to just be themselves, to meet up with people and to be comfortable, she says.

Ms Boss may soon join the hunt for place to live too, as her current rental has just been sold.

“I’ve been looking up some of the options to see what is on the rental market.”

There’s not much available, it’s expensive and it’s often short term, she says.

The 'underbelly' that's cause for concern

Ms Pool says her team of volunteers at the Citizens Advice Bureau is increasingly hearing from tenants seeking support after “extreme” rent jumps or disputes with landlords or flatmates.

The current housing squeeze is exacerbating issues.

The Citizens Advice Bureau in Queenstown is hearing from increasing numbers of people with housing problems, its manager says.

"What's happening at the moment, from what we can understand, is you'll get 40 or 60 people to a viewing for a room, then somebody might offer more for that room. So what that does is set the precedent for what that room is worth. So a landlord can go 'right, my year is up, here we go, I'm going to increase your rate to current market value.

"We had a family come in with a rent that went from $750 to $900. He says 'I'm going to look for another place'. He went to look for another place and found out that everybody around him is paying $900. No leg to stand on."

Some people are signing tenancy agreements sight unseen and running into problems because of it, while others are realising without a name on a tenancy agreement they have very few rights, she says.

“We’re getting a lot of people who are being treated really poorly because of that.

“And they’re the people that come and see us – there’s a lot of people who do not come and see us because they do not want to lose their room. It’s that underbelly of people that I’m really concerned about.”

Mr Garcias has been living rough now for two months, since being evicted from a rental he shared with two others for a year.

The landlord wanted to use the home for short term accommodation – Mr Garcias says he’s seen his old rental listed on Airbnb, allowing up to six people to stay per night.

He believes “it’s happening quite a lot” and has a few friends as well as people he’s met at the campgrounds who are in the same situation.  

He says he’s “trying to be positive and find a place”, and his employer is searching too.

“I’ve applied for so many places I can’t give you a number.”

He sends applications daily, which sometimes won’t even receive a response.

In addition, it has affected how he feels towards Queenstown.

“There’s that feeling like I am an outsider because I’m homeless."  

He says he hasn’t “seriously thought about it”, but if he doesn’t find a house he may look to leave New Zealand – but that’s not his preference.

Ms Pool says she's bracing for housing availability to worsen in the coming months: "There's already no accommodation and we're only in March...this is kind of that quiet season between seasons".

"How are we going to attract people to do the jobs if we can't give them a solution?"

Main image: Luis Garcias has been living in his car for two months, while holding down a full-time job.


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