Bleak reality of Queenstown's working homeless


As Queenstown’s rental housing shortage continues to hit the headlines, Rhyva van Onselen decided to live in his car for three nights to get a taste of life as one of the resort town’s working houseless residents.

It is only when I wake up shivering, despite wearing four layers of clothes and wrapping myself in four blankets that I realise what I have got myself into.

It is 6.30am, 1degC outside, and I need to go to the toilet.

My hips are sore from the firm base of the back of my station wagon, and there is enough condensation on the windows to make a cup of coffee.

Fumbling my way out the back door, I walk in pitch darkness to the long drop at 12 Mile Delta, a freedom camping site about 15 minutes’ drive from the CBD.

Dotted around me are about 20 other vehicles, their windows also fogged up inside, and covered in ice on the outside.

By 7am, I am on the way to the Queenstown Events Centre, in Frankton, for a $5 shower before heading back to the CBD for work.

Rinse and repeat.

The first night was the easiest.

I was fresh, wearing clean clothes, my gear was neatly packed and dry, and I looked forward to filming myself for a video story about the same topic.

But driving down to the campsite for my second night, after paying the $15 nightly fee, I began feeling glum.

It felt colder, I was weary from my broken sleep the night before, and my towel was still damp from the morning.

After setting up my bed, I sat there feeling bored and lonely, with nothing to do.

Otago Daily Times’ Rhyva van Onselen sits in the car he spent three nights living in to get a...
Otago Daily Times’ Rhyva van Onselen sits in the car he spent three nights living in to get a taste of life as one of the Queenstown’s working homeless residents. PHOTOS: RHYVA VAN ONSELEN
Looking at the 20-30 other vehicles parked around me, I wondered where they kept all their stuff.

My front seats were packed to the brim, despite only having a duffle bag, my camera gear and a small chilly bin for food.

Assuming they were long-term car dwellers, I wondered where they were keeping all their clothes and other worldly possessions.

On day two, I went to Arrowtown to interview Pete Heaney.

He had come down from Motueka in early April with a plan to work on one of the skifields, but a room in a flat he had lined up fell through, and he had to live in his van for two months.

Mr van Onselen brushes his teeth at the Queenstown Events Centre before heading to work.
Mr van Onselen brushes his teeth at the Queenstown Events Centre before heading to work.
He made me realise that my three-night experiment could in no way replicate the reality of living in my car.

The most daunting part, Mr Heaney told me, was the fear of not knowing when it would end.

"My mental health really suffered, especially on rainy days ... I was just stuck in the car."

On the third night, feeling cold to the core, stiff from two nights on my 2cm-thick foam mattress and decidedly sleep-deprived, I realised how fortunate I was to have flatmates, a fireplace, a kitchen, an actual bathroom with a shower just down the hall from my warm room, a washing machine, internet access, power sockets ...

These are things we take for granted.

Mr van Onselen wakes up on the second morning of his three-night stay at Twelve Mile Delta.
Mr van Onselen wakes up on the second morning of his three-night stay at Twelve Mile Delta.
Keen for some human contact, I went to talk to Queenstown Housing Initiative co-founder Hannah Sullivan.

Ms Sullivan, who has lived and worked in the resort town for seven years, said she had her share of moving in and out of homes over that time.

By helping to set up the Queenstown Housing Initiative in March, she put herself in the front line of a battle to shine a light on the issue.

She said the rental housing crisis had become so acute because people in power had taken no meaningful steps to alleviate it.

"The people who can make a difference are choosing not to.

Mr van Onselen sets up his car to sleep in for three nights.
Mr van Onselen sets up his car to sleep in for three nights.
"They are blaming their own rules and their own red tape as the reason we can’t do anything."

That red tape was "holding back" the Queenstown Lakes District Council and central government from making the changes needed.

She gave the example of 32 council-owned cabins near the resort town’s CBD it had allowed to fall into disrepair, and could not be made available for rent because of healthy home rules.

It is fair to say, there is no one person or organisation to blame for Queenstown’s rental housing woes, nor is there a magic bullet solution.

But as winter bites deeper, perhaps we need to examine our collective conscience, and ask ourselves this question: how far is our community prepared to go to ensure that everyone has a roof over their heads?

rhyva.vanonselen@odt.co.nz

 

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