Speakers at a conference on Māori housing highlighted how major events like Covid-19 and Cyclone Gabrielle have exposed serious housing issues for Māori communities, but also put forward solutions they have seen work.

The biennial conference is being held in Rotorua after first being launched there in 2010. This year’s conference attracted more than 900 registrations. Wayne Knox, general manager of Te Matapihi Trust, which is focused on Māori housing, was the keynote speaker and he acknowledged that events over the past few years had severely impacted Māori access to housing, including Covid and Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle. But he said there were many solutions Māori were coming up with to respond to the needs of their people.

“The fact that so many are here is testament to how important a secure, healthy affordable home is. Especially for our whānau that don’t have one. They are the reason why we’re here. Evidence shows continuing disparity between Māori and Pākehā on the housing continuum over decades.”

He said Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle underlined not only the inequities in housing but the resilience of Māori communities.

“Straight away all of that Māori social infrastructure that became so tightly woven through Covid kicked into gear. Our marae, our hapū, our iwi were at the centre of the response, despite many of them being cut off from the rest of the world.

“We watched as the mainstream response seemed to miss our kāinga altogether, along with the resources. As affluent areas had services restored promptly while our kāinga were forgotten about, we were reminded just how racist the system can be. And I don’t use that word lightly.”

Despite these disparities he said Māori community networks supported those in need even while being affected by the devastation of the floods.

“Our whānau relied on iwi, hapū, marae and kāinga-led responses. We housed and fed entire communities even without the outside resources we should have been entitled to. In a state of emergency, access to accommodation, food, water, wastewater and communication is crucial, especially for our vulnerable – our disabled, our kaumātua, those needing medical care, some of our highly-stressed whānau where there is a high risk of domestic violence – these whānau need to be prioritised.”

Knox made a special mention of the late Ricky Houghton who worked on getting whānau into housing in Northland and died last year. Knox quoted from Houghton’s evidence he gave at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing into housing. Houghton said: “We see so much of Māori starting from homelessness, which turns into hopelessness and then into helplessness. I’ve had to see Māori struggle, plead and fight for what is considered the bottom rung of homes. This is not only heartbreaking and degrading, but it is also a clear breach of what was promised by the Crown under Te Tiriti, to actively protect tino rangatiratanga and to provide equality of outcomes under Article 3.”

Haehaetu Barrett, chief executive of Lifewise Trust, said many of the reasons people end up in housing stress is related to trauma that is often intergenerational. She talked about how in one of her first jobs she worked the night shift at accident and emergency on reception, and how that prepared her for dealing with people’s trauma.

“I became hungry to make the difference, to be that significant point of hope when whānau are at their most vulnerable and looking for that one face.

“My passion was to serve people that were the most vulnerable. I could see, I didn’t know what it was called then, discrimination. I could see it in each sector. It’s still alive and well right now.”

While she trained as as social worker, she said it was her ability to build trust with vulnerable people that underpinned her work.

“As I made it into certain roles and networks, the kaupapa of homelessness is not new. It’s around generational trauma. It’s around mental health and addictions. It’s around people struggling to be included into their own whānau again because of their addictions. It’s around the whakama (shame).

“It’s about finding that person who can intrinsically gain trust from our whānau, because at that point where they’re at their worst, that’s all they need – a person they can trust to talk to.”

She said events like Covid expose the vulnerabilities that already exist. Before Covid hit, Lifewise had just under 100 people on their books in Rotorua who were homeless. Three years later they had around 2500.

“The majority of those numbers are mental health and addictions. The majority of mental health and addictions is intergenerational trauma. Homelessness is real but that’s just the label for it. This is about our people and everything they experience.”

Adele Barsdell from Reporoa spoke about the iwi trust, Tauhara North no 2 Trust, which has built solutions that work for its members.

The trust was involved in buying land in Mt Wellington and building an apartment development with 30 apartments that are rented to members of the iwi.

“In total, these 30 apartments, if they are at full capacity, will house 108 whānau members. So along with our housing at Reporoa, within a two-year time span we would have housed just over 200 people. For a trust that’s never done it before and we started from zero in 2018 when we went to the conference in Ngāruawāhia, we’re just proud of what we’ve done. But it was the people at those hui that inspired us to keep moving forward. What you said really meant a lot to us.”

But she said it was not simply an issue of accommodation but of rebuilding relationships and connections to each other.

“At our camps the kids want to know, is this my marae? What’s my iwi? How do I whakapapa to this trust? The same thing happens with their parents. They all want to connect. In fact that has become number one in this housing development. You can give me anything else, but give me my whakapapa first. So we’re committed to that. We’ve bought this development to support our whānau living outside our rohe and we’re going to give them back their whakapapa that they’re hungry for. They’re hungry for it. They haven’t known, they haven’t been able to connect. That’s now going to be happening in Mt Wellington, Auckland, in our kāinga.”

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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