Queenstown's 'working homeless' to protest tonight

by Lauren Pattemore - Mar 27, 2023

Fed up with the housing situation in Queenstown, one 'working homeless' woman, Hannah Sullivan, decided to be the one to rally everyone without a home together at the Lakefront.

Ms Sullivan’s never been to a protest, let alone organised one, but seeing the issue of homelessness in the district and no action in response to it, she says she felt compelled to act. Her close friend, Lindsay Waterfield, agreed and helped organise.

“It’s something that needs to change, it’s the job of our MPs and our housing minister and they’re not being bothered to address it, so there needs to be a voice for it," Ms Waterfield says.

It’s not the responsibility of workers to find solutions - whether they be building more homes, providing emergency housing, or writing new Airbnb regulations - Ms Waterfield says. Instead, she believes the protest is about bringing everyone together and showing those who are in this situation that they’re not alone in their struggle.

“We’re just two community members, we can only do so much,” Ms Waterfield says.

In the past few weeks, they say they’ve heard from so many different people in the community who can’t find anywhere to live. Ms Sullivan says her phone battery no longer lasts a full day because it’s inundated with messages from people reaching out for support.

She hears from a wide demographic of people - there's the family of six who’ve been living at a campsite for two months, a mental health nurse in hot demand who had to leave the district, and a seventy-year-old man who’s living in a tent, she says.

Crux recently spoke to Luis Garcias, who lives in his van, juggling late-night work shifts with finding somewhere to park up, sleep and shower.

Luis has been living in his van for two months after his rental became an Airbnb.

“It’s the sort of issue, where the more you look, the more you find. And I’m terrified to keep looking,” Ms Sullivan says.

They’re encouraging everyone to come along to the protest tonight, whether they’re directly affected or to show support for others. The event is to be held at 6.30pm this evening (Monday, March 27) on Marine Parade, by the lakefront.

“People are working 50-hour weeks holding this town together and they don't have anywhere safe where they can go and rest and recharge,” Ms Waterfield says.

The pair met with Joseph Mooney to talk about the working homeless situation. They say he initially  questioned whether there were really homeless people in Queenstown, because he hadn’t sighted any. Ms Waterfield spoke to this, saying it’s because they’re all working.

“You're not gonna see them sleeping on the benches during the day or sleeping in their cars in the day because they're holding the economy together.”

She suggested he walk around at six in the morning to see all the fogged-up car windows.

Ms Sullivan says politicians like Mr Mooney could be doing more.

“We vote for people to look after us, and at the moment, they’re not doing that. If I went to work and didn’t do my job, then I wouldn’t have one.”

To help Mr Mooney see the size of the problem, they’ve organised a survey for people in the community to fill in. There's a QR link to take people directly to it online, and it's displayed on bus stops and other public places around town, as well as on social media. They've already received 400 responses.

Speaking to Crux today, Mr Mooney has confirmed his attendance at tonight's protest.

MP for Southland Joseph Mooney has confirmed his attendance at tonight's protest.

He says he was yet to meet a homeless person himself in Queenstown, but says he has been looking.

He's talked to a few people with vans, but they have told him they are not homeless - When asked for more detail on his search, Mr Mooney says he does not want to provide more information because of privacy considerations for the people spoken to.

He says he is also looking at regulatory changes related to the Residential Tenancies Act, which was amended in 2020 by Labour. He says it's made it more unattractive to rent out properties.

It's a sentiment shared by others - Crux has previously spoken to local property managers about this last November, and they agreed the changes to the tenancy act mean there are fewer homeowners willing to rent out their properties.

Looking at the census data for 2018, Mr Mooney says even if one percent of the unoccupied homes locally were made available for rent, that would open up 800 more beds.

Mr Mooney couldn't confirm if National would make changes to the Residential Tenancies Act if elected into government at the end of the year.

"It's something I am looking into to see what can be done," Mr Mooney says.

The protest organisers say they also reached out to Mayor Glyn Lewers last night, inviting him to come along.

Crux contacted Glyn Lewers this morning, and he said he “didn’t know much about it” and would not be attending as he was looking after his kids this evening, and going to Wellington early Tuesday morning.

Ms Sullivan was surprised they hadn’t heard from the mayor earlier, and believes it’s his responsibility to know what’s going on in the community.

They decided to organise the protest when Ms Sullivan became part of the group of ‘working homeless’ herself a few weeks ago. Just before her lease was up, she went to the Citizen Advice Bureau.

Crux spoke to the Citizens Advice Bureau manager, Tracy Pool, in mid-March. She acknowledged the size of the problem and growing concerns for winter, and asked for short-term solutions from local and central government to help people caught out – like opening up rugby clubs or local churches to provide showers and shelter.

Happiness House manager Léna Boss has also confirmed insecure housing is a big issue in Queenstown and expressed she was about to experience its impact first-hand, with her rental lease soon to expire.

On the day Ms Sullivan called into the CAB, she was the sixth person in with the same problem - the person before her had a six-year-old child. Ms Sullivan says it had been difficult for her to reach out and admit she was struggling, and it was even more difficult when she found out there was not much these social service organisations could do.

“I went into a really dark place; it really took me back to thinking ‘what’s the point, if no one gives a care in the world about me.’ That’s a really dangerous place to be.

“That was the straw that broke the camel's back for her and for me knowing there are people with children that are out there and sleeping in tents and they're sleeping in their cars and no security, nowhere to be warm.”

Ms Sullivan isn’t sure how many people will turn up to the protest tonight and admits she’s feeling anxious.

Ms Waterfield says they’re “the most introverted people”, but will be there to support anyone who comes along.

She knows it will take courage to come along, and acknowledges there can be a lot of shame and embarrassment surrounding these living conditions. But she wants to put those people at ease.

“We got you. Come down for a hug and to hear everybody’s stories, you’re not alone and you’re not forgotten about.”

Main image: Two workers eat dinner in a Queenstown supermarket car park.

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