Summer read: Tauranga mother’s journey out of homelessness

The Bay of Plenty Times is bringing back some of the best premium stories of 2020.

Janine Cork is starting over with next to nothing. Not a stick of furniture, a scrap of linen, and barely any cutlery to eat with.

But for the first time in five years, the Tauranga woman and her 13-year-old son have a permanent roof over their heads and, to her, that’s everything.

They moved into an Accessible Housing property in late February after nearly three years in transitional housing.

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Cork says she is a different person to five years ago, when her life fell apart and she became homeless after losing her rental because the landlords decided to move in.

Then, she was struggling with addiction and getting out of a bad relationship, and had nowhere to go.

She and her son found a room in a boarding house, keeping to their room to avoid the other tenants.

In 2017, she went to transitional and emergency housing provider Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust and has been staying in their properties since.

It has been a transformative – and frustrating – experience.

“When I first went into Te Tuinga Whanau I used to wear hoodies all the time. I would just put my hood up and sit there and wouldn’t participate.

“I was so low that I didn’t believe in myself.

Things started to change when Te Tuinga founder Tommy Wilson’s brother Stephen Wilson – a chef – started giving cooking classes to the organisation’s residents.

“Soon the hoodie was off and I’m participating and then the next minute I was louder than everyone else.”

Stephen Wilson would go on to start social enterprise catering company Happy Puku, with Cork as one of its first casual employees.

“I take whatever work comes my way. I enjoy work, it does something for my self-esteem,” Cork said.

Any earnings she makes above a threshold, however, impact her sole parent support benefit.

Cork has been on the social housing waiting list since March 2018.

She had a constant stream of rejections from online applications for private rentals. Hundreds over the years.

“I wasn’t a young family with 2.5 children or a professional couple so they weren’t interested.”

Cork spent a day visiting rental company offices with no success – an experience caseworker Tracey Wilson, who accompanied her, described as “nothing short of humiliating”.

Wilson said she was also shocked to discover Cork’s efforts to pull herself out of poverty, including getting a job, were hurting her social housing priority.

“She is doing everything she can do but as a result, she was going further and further down the priority list.”

Cork said it was “demotivational”.

“The more I did right, the less chance I had of getting a home.”

Ministry of Social Development acting regional commissioner Kim Going said the waiting list was not time-ranked, it was dynamic and dependent on criteria reflecting need levels.

“How quickly they are housed depends both on their need and what is available that matches that need.”

People with disabilities, serious health needs or fleeing domestic violence would be among those who tended to be housed most quickly.

A shortage of affordable housing in New Zealand was making it harder to find homes for people, however.

“As the housing shortage continues, the number of people we’re helping continues to grow and at any given time, we have many people, often with high needs and complex situations, looking for housing.

“We recognise that for some people there is a long waiting time to get social housing. In instances where people have had to wait for a long time for social housing, they are often already housed in other types of accommodation like transitional housing.”

Going said the ministry’s records indicated Cork had been “in a variety of property types” since early 2015 and with Te Tuinga since June 2017.

“We would like to add that we have been trying since November 2016 to get Janine a Social Housing Assessment. Despite multiple attempts by phone and booked appointments we were only able to get her to complete the assessment in March 2018.”

The ministry wished Cork all the best.

Cork said she had no idea the ministry was trying to get in touch with her over that time.

She was now looking forward to settling into her “beautiful” new home – in a safe neighbourhood, close to work and with a proper oven where she could put to use her new skills.

She was on the hunt for furniture – including some beds – and homewares, having lost most of those possessions since becoming homeless.

Now five years sober, she hoped people would be inspired by her story.

“I feel like I’ve got my life back. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

The long wait

The gulf between supply and demand for public housing in Tauranga is the widest in New Zealand.

Vicki McLaren, general manager of Accessible Properties Limited Tauranga, which owns most of Tauranga’s social housing, said there was no doubt there were people on the register “waiting for way longer than they need to be”.

There was, however, a lot of good work happening between local social agencies to ensure they were communicating, taking a broad view of each family’s needs and finding solutions at a local level, while staying within the system.

“We need to make sure we make good decisions.”

The waiting list was at a “record” high, she said, and the organisation was also working to increase its stock of housing.

Housing register

December 2019
Tauranga: 393
Western Bay: 102

December 2018
Tauranga: 261
Western Bay: 56

December 2017
Tauranga: 166
Western Bay: 30

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