Fatal Christchurch fire highlights the need for action on youth homelessness
The death of young Christchurch resident, Corey James Mclean, over the weekend highlights the growing problem of youth
homelessness in New Zealand. With more than half of New Zealand’s homeless under the age of 25, youth homelessness is
not only an economic drain on New Zealand, it also signals the tragic loss of hope and potential, and in this case, the
tragic loss of a life.
General Manager of social development agency, Lifewise, says: “Youth homelessness is, sadly, a growing issue. It’s worse
in the current economic climate with the numbers of families living in poverty, but it’s also an increasing problem in
Auckland and Christchurch in particular, as the result of housing shortages.”
Sadly, homelessness is often the experience of young people leaving foster care, which happens at the age of 17 in New
Zealand. While the many young people leave care to a safe and long-term home, studies in the United Kingdom, United
States and Australia indicate the average rate of subsequent homelessness for youth transitioning from foster care is as
high as 43%. This illuminates a significant problem across New Zealand.
“80% of the homeless youth we see have been in foster care,” explains Moira. “These young people, like many others their
age, are vulnerable, however due to broken connections with their family and the community, they have less resources and
often less resilience – they’re often ill prepared for independent living and have poor access to income or appropriate
It’s a myth that homeless people are old men with alcohol problems. The reality is that some of our most vulnerable
young people, fall through the gaps in New Zealand and are often ignored, and overlooked. Agencies like Lifewise are
working to tackle, and ultimately end, homelessness with their ‘housing first’ and ‘hand up, not hand out’ approaches.
“At Lifewise, we believe that it is possible to end homelessness.” says Moira. “We need to be getting alongside young
people and those at risk of homelessness early, in order to keep people in housing, and support those without housing
into stable accommodation. A youth development approach – supporting young people to make their own decisions as they
move towards adulthood – would certainly help.”
Poto Williams, Labour MP in Christchurch and long-time supporter of Lifewise also claimed that “more needed to be done
to make safe housing available for young people.”
Indeed, it can be seen that providing a range of affordable housing options is inevitably needed as part of the
long-term solution, as there currently just aren’t enough viable (read: safe and secure) options to begin to tackle the
problem. Supported youth housing has also been put forward as a solution and, although there are some good models out
there, these struggle to secure sustainable funding.
“Lifting incomes to families, as well as policy shifts around the age of leaving care would make a huge difference too,”
explains Moira. “People aren’t eligible for many services until the age of 18, so when their foster care support runs
out on their seventeenth birthday, they are forced into a no-mans-land, where there aren’t a lot of options – the
alternative gap year.”
It’s clear that we need to do more to tackle the issues surrounding homelessness in New Zealand, and we especially need
a youth-focused approach. There is no one path to homelessness – instead it is a complex issue requiring collaborative
and ‘out of the box’ thinking as we work together to find solutions. Corey losing his life raises questions to which we
need answers – he was someone’s son, many people’s former classmate and to still others, a friend. It truly was a
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Lifewise’s work with homeless people is focused on assisting homeless people into housing. Lifewise also provides food
for homeless people, through Merge, a community café on K Road in Auckland. Lifewise is successfully intervening in the
issue of street homelessness and since late 2010, Lifewise has housed more than 357 people directly from the streets
into a range of accommodations both within and outside the inner city and coordinated support services to help them
retain that accommodation. On average, Lifewise assists 70 clients a month, with 5 people typically housed a month.
Lifewise is now exploring ways to prevent people becoming homeless.
Lifewise believes there are three key factors critical to ending homelessness. Initially, there needs to be an adequate stock of affordable housing, and supports in place to ensure homeless people
maintain tenancies and are not simply placed in accommodation. Secondly, income issues need to be addressed. To achieve
stability and security, everyone needs an adequate income. Creating educational, training and employment opportunities
is thus a critical aspect of ending homelessness. Young people are particularly vulnerable at present, given the
complexities of the benefit system. There needs to be a safety net to provide support for those young people struggling
to meet the criteria to access benefits. Finally, connections play a crucial role in the bid to end homelessness.
Connections to whanau, friends and community, enable an individual to thrive.
Lifewise works to a ‘housing first’ model -an internationally acknowledged model, which has been hugely successful over
the last decade in the USA. Lifewise has also tackled the issue of uncoordinated services – a range of mainstream
agencies are onsite at the Lifewise Hub, enabling homeless people to access support services (mental health services,
drug & alcohol support, probation services, housing and welfare) in a one-stop shop. Lifewise is working to influence
homelessness intervention practice at a national level so that soup kitchens and night shelters are no longer considered
the appropriate response to street homelessness in New Zealand.
Homelessness can be viewed on a continuum, and ‘rough sleeping’ is just the tip of the iceberg- there are countless more
‘hidden homeless’, couch-surfing, living in hostels, caravan parks and people’s garages. While this temporarily may be
seen as preferable to sleeping on the street, it is still homelessness, as the accommodation is often not deemed safe or
secure. Homelessness can happen to anyone – we are all only three major life events away from homelessness.