Hamilton mum forced to choose between living in a car with kids, or splitting them up

A Hamilton woman says she was forced to choose between living in a car with four children in her care, or having them split between homes.

The woman, who doesn’t want to be named to protect her whanau, was told by officials they could not grant emergency housing for the “preference” of keeping everyone together.

“I’m not parting with my kids … I’ve said to them I’m not prepared to give up my children.”

Instead of spreading her whanau between multiple homes with people she’s not close with, the woman stayed in her car for about 10 days with her children and grandchildren.

During their stint in the car, the woman told the Herald they parked up on the side of the road and beside beaches.

Prior to living in the car, she had been in the same rental for multiple years, however the owner was selling so she had to move out.

After initially contacting the Herald when she was living in her car, the woman was finally offered emergency accommodation, but she’s concerned other women may also find themselves in the same situation.

But before that was granted, in a recording reviewed by the Herald, a Ministry of Social Development worker can be heard explaining to the woman that when they look for emergency housing they need to make sure there are no other options for her or her children.

The worker told the woman it was about putting a roof over their heads and that they could not place people in emergency housing if they had other places they could go.

One of the workers told the woman children often did better when they were separated and sent to family, than they would in an hotel.

“It’s not a good place for a 4-year-old to be, in emergency housing, on the main street.”

Anglican Action chief executive and missioner Karen Morrison-Hume told the Herald while it may not be desirable to have children living in emergency housing, it was worse to have them separated from caregivers.

“I don’t think there’s any question at all, we have to ask ourselves what’s in the best interest of the children.”

On the face of it, she said, the priority should be to maintain the relationship between the children and their carer by keeping them together.

Morrison-Hume suspected that on any given day they would hear a variation of this woman’s story and said the issue highlights Aotearoa’s housing crisis.

When asked whether they could provide social housing for the woman, the worker said they didn’t have a social housing place for her, and said the waiting list for the scheme was about 15,000.

The worker then said that as long as she had a good rental record the woman should be able to find somewhere else.

“They’re not going, they’re not leaving my care. I’m not giving up my kids to no one,” the mother said.

“You are not allowed to split families up. You’re taking my kids away and putting them in someone else’s care.”

When the mother requested to speak to the manager, the worker told her she couldn’t pass her on to the manager.

“That’s not how this works.”

Part way through the call, the mother asks one of her children if she wants to stay where the woman is suggesting but the worker says she wouldn’t discuss it with a 13-year-old.

“In fact, what I’m going to do is I am going to end the call soon. We’re not getting anywhere … I’ll leave this in your court.”

The worker then told the woman she “can’t do anything more”, if the woman is just going to argue with her.

One option the worker said they would consider was paying for them to go to Wellington to stay with other family members if there was no one nearby.

Regarding her two boys, the staff member wanted to contact their father to see if the children could stay with him. The woman replied that the man was already staying in a one-bedroom emergency accommodation.

In a statement, Ministry for Social Development regional commissioner Te Rehia Papesch told the Herald they have helped the woman and her whanau into emergency housing for 14 nights while they support her to find long-term housing.

Although Papesch said keeping families together is a priority, emergency housing is a last resort.

“Before we pay for emergency housing in motels, we ensure those who come to us have exhausted all alternative options for accommodation. This will include staying with family or friends.”

She said whenever someone comes to them for urgent accommodation help they talk with them in depth about their options, and this woman had a wide support network.

“We wanted to establish if any of them could temporarily help with the four children in her care, including two whāngai (ages 16, 13, 8 and 4).”

Some of the children had previously stayed long-term with other whanau, but when none of these options panned out they granted her emergency housing.

The ministry is still exploring accommodation options that could work with the woman long-term.

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