When I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to walk through downtown early in the morning. Renowned as one of the most dangerous areas in LA, downtown and its infamous Skid Row, with its large population of homeless people, has become an area where people avoid venturing at all costs after dark and many simply refuse to visit. As I walked through this area, I couldn't help but feeling a sense of dread, although I was well aware that many of my perceptions were structured by media stereotypes. Later in the week, at the conference I was attending at UCLA on New Directions in the Humanities, I sat in on Dr David Wagner from the University of Southern Maine's presentation on the rise and fall of homelessness as a social issue in the US. There is little doubt that homelessness is related to the vast social inequalities that punctuate a country like the US, and also the trauma of being a nation at war (nearly a third of the homeless in the US are ex-veterans).
Wagner's presentation was particularly interesting as it charted the trajectory of the rise in the homeless population in the US, and also the way that people's perception had been shaped by its priority as an issue in the media. In the 1980s, homelessness became a big issue as the social effects of the deinstitutionalization of the Seventies kicked in. 3,500 shelters were built across the US, and the feeling under Reagan's America was that this was a social issue that could be solved. By the late 1980s, a backlash effect occurred and the emphasis shifted to cleaning the streets and cutting benefits. Wagner's presentation effectively traced how America had quite simply learned how to live with homelessness, to the extent that homeless people are a regular fixture outside many of my friends homes there.
While downtown Auckland is considerably different to the down and out streets of LA, thinking of the situation here, one can't help but wonder what will be the effect of the adoption of many social and economic policy stances in New Zealand that have led to the creation of vast inequalities in America. In many countries, homelessness becomes an issue when it infringes on the staging of international events, with states looking to clear homeless out from areas surrounding the cities where tourists visit, or shifting events to parts of the city where visitors can easily avoid the harsh realities of life, as in the recent Soccer World Cup in South Africa.
Homelessness is an issue in New Zealand. At the beginning of last year, it was estimated that homeless people may top 20,000, more than three times previously reported. The New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness met this week in Wellington and have been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the problem, a move that Labour has supported. With the 2011 Rugby World Cup coming up in Auckland, it is only a matter of time before we hear moves to clean up the streets again. Whether this equates to John Banks' plans to ban loitering and begging in the city or not, this hardly deals with the source of the problem. In a country where the social system is still quite good in terms of providing the unemployed with benefits, homelessness is often linked to social exclusion and addiction. Corrections Minister Judith Collins stated last month that drugs and alcohol were a major driver of our prison population, and constituted an influence in two-thirds of the cases of people in prison. Judith Collins has opened more addiction centres in prison, but it is important that this is followed up with help for people outside of prison as well. If National want to put such a hard stance on law and order at the same time as weakening employee rights, then they are morally obligated to put their money where their mouth is and deal more comprehensively with these sorts of social problems.