Prior to meeting James Widgery, General Manager of Community Housing at VisionWest, my knowledge of homelessness in New Zealand could be boiled down to two statements:
One, that there are a lot of people, especially in Auckland, who are homeless despite having jobs. The other, that VisionWest is providing them with these basic needs.
But like so many social issues, I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. James, however, sees the whole iceberg daily.
Over the past year, the media has regularly highlighted the increase in homelessness, bringing greater awareness to the extent of homelessness in New Zealand.
While homelessness is stereotypically portrayed as living on the streets, there is a large percentage of “hidden homeless” people – those who have shelter, but not a home.
This is the demographic known as the ‘working poor’ – people who, despite having an income, cannot afford a place to call home. Despite working and attempts to maintain a home and the financial stability that should result, families are getting buried in unexpected expenses and rising rent.
That’s why VisionWest takes a more holistic approach to housing, working alongside social workers to find long term solutions. Their service is just as much about providing stability as it is shelter; letting clients know that they are loved.
VisionWest has been leading the way with community housing for over a decade, James explains to me, starting as “a small organisation who punched above their weight”. After the Christchurch earthquakes, it was VisionWest who were approached by Rangiora Baptist for assistance with community housing.
Now growing in size and in scale, VisionWest is partnering up with other housing organisations to inform the sector. Collaborating with other Non-Government Organisations is the best way to meet a rapidly growing need.
So what’s next for VisionWest? James says that there are so many opportunities to grow, but these require both funding and new staff. Fortunately, the government is beginning to see the value of targeted support systems, which will hopefully make it easier to get funding.
There are currently plans in the works to establish a programme targeted at young mothers, involving housing, employment training, and mentoring. In a later discussion with VisionWest social worker Sonya Coop, I also discovered more about Housing First, a new project for the chronically homeless which VisionWest will be adding to their many services.
VisionWest is about providing more than just the basics, and I doubt they’ll be slowing down any time soon.