Interview: Park Up for Homes

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Milo West
October 14, 2016
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There was a lot of ‘them and us’ conversation going on.
Mike Hosking was in the media saying how middle NZ wouldn’t agree with certain things.
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We took our hands off it: if it was something people cared about then it would keep going.
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We want a plan that addresses needs rather than this ad hoc ‘the market will fix it without us thinking about it’ approach.
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The accommodation supplement is just a middle class landlord benefit scheme.
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People need to be taken on a journey in their activism or political engagement.
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We couldn't do what Te Puea was doing: working to your strengths is key.
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It might have a different flavour and you need to let things evolve sometimes.
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Its not always what's literally common, its creating the sense that these things should be common.

Park Up for Homes was a series of protests held through the 2016 winter around different parts of Tāmaki Makaurau and Aotearoa. The protests were organised and supported by different people and organisations but all shared the message that homelessness is unacceptable and that people do not accept it.

Here, Milo West talks with two of the organisers of the first Park Up for Homes protest in Māngere. Jo Latif and Justin Latif discuss the how the Park Up for Homes protests started and reflect on the difficulties and successes the campaign had.

Jo is of Pākehā, mostly Irish, whakapapa. She grew up in Tauranga and has lived in Māngere for six years where she taught at Māngere College. She is currently a mother of a 2 ½ year old, with another one due in January.

Justin was born in Fiji and his family was originally from India. His mother is Pākehā, originally from England. He lives in Māngere with Jo and their child. Justin was previously a community worker and advocate and is currently a journalist.

... 

Can we start by you describing the beginnings of Park Up for Homes?

JO: I’m Jo Latif, I got involved in Park Up for Homes in June.

JUSTIN: I’m Justin, I’m married to Jo and we sat around our lounge with another friend of ours, Annalise and decided to do something and that’s what led to Park Up for Homes starting.

JO: We were noticing a lot of people in their cars in Māngere and we saw a news piece on TV3 and lengthy interviews with the homeless and children and I think knowing it was an issue and has been going on a while but also seeing it in the media – and with our flatmate, who works for the Salvation Army – so it was a good time to do something because other people were aware of it. So we thought we would grab this moment in time, when it had media attention, to actually do a protest and then we came up with the idea of getting a whole bunch of people together and sleeping in our cars somewhere, having a peaceful protest.

JUSTIN: One of the big ideas was, there was a lot of ‘them and us’ conversation going on – even following that story on TV3 – that here’s this problem down there. Its their fault, lets point out all the faults of those who find themselves in those situations, lets blame them and that sort of discourse happens a lot. I guess we also know a lot of people who aren’t always homeless but struggle, and knowing the complexities of their lives – we just thought, how do you get the general public and potentially the government to engage empathetically with these issues. We thought something that was really accessible like parking up in your car, sleeping a night and getting a feel for what it's like. And maybe out of that sense of empathy people will actually be a lot more caring and understanding and not be so judgemental. So that was the basic premise. And we just wanted to make it something that people would be able to say, ‘hey, as New Zealanders we can't let this happen in our society.’ We’re not egalitarian anymore, we’ve actually become unequal as a nation and so how do we raise that point.

JO: A big thing for us was how do we reach the middle class. There was a lot of stuff in the media at the time about ‘middle New Zealand’. Mike Hosking was in the media saying how middle NZ wouldn’t agree with certain things, and we thought, hey we’re middle NZ and we think other middle New Zealanders have a heart and do care about other people. So we thought we’d try reach them because a lot of them are National voters and have the power to speak to the government and challenge them. In the end, the first protest we had in Māngere targeted a wide range of society. We had locals that had been homeless coming or had friends that were homeless. People were really connected and feeling like, ‘yea I want to get behind this.' And then we had a lot of friends in central Auckland and just all over saying they wanted to get behind it. So it was great having everyone coming together and interacting with each other and sharing their stories. That was the most powerful: everyone sharing their stories. There was this one group of young people – Slayroom – that did a documentary, and they interviewed all sorts of people – that was a really cool one.

So it came out a concern for what was going on, and bringing together different sectors of society...

JUSTIN: Yea, so we were just chatting – just the three of us – and we pulled in some friends, and they were people who were good at organising and really passionate about these issues as well, so that really gave it a lot of momentum. Pretty much everyone who was involved was a local South Aucklander. We pulled in people from our different networks. I think in the end we had over a thousand in Māngere, in Ōtara over 300, and Onehunga would have been around 200-300 – and that was all in the first two weeks. And then West Auckland was shortly after that, with a couple of hundred. There were about six events spread out over the next 2-3 months. To be honest we probably took our hands off at that point and just let things run. We just wanted to set the tone, and if it was something people cared about then it would keep going. CPAG [Child Poverty Action Group], who came on board through Alan Johnson, were able to put some funding behind it and were able to keep it going financially for other groups.

JO: They [CPAG] wanted to support something, not necessarily run it, but get behind it. So that was good because we had the freedom to do what we wanted and use some of their policies and we had their backing and financial support. The great thing about it was we had different people give us different resources, so we had people bringing in food or donating stuff or lighting. There was a security company, 2 days before the event, that said we want to do security for the night so we were grateful for that.

JUSTIN: And there was a logistics company that donated massive lighting and shipped in portaloos. That happened with all the groups, all the protests had some level of community business behind it in some way. Because they are a bit of a logistic nightmare, to feed and water  50-100 people, or 1000 in our case – its actually quite hard. Especially when you’re doing it under the radar, it makes it tricky as well. Because we were essentially occupying public spaces which is technically illegal, so it did require people to step out a little bit, and it required the local bodies to not kick up a fuss.

JO: And some of them came.

JUSTIN: Yea, and I think it showed that a lot of people in local government cared about this issue: they didn’t block it when they probably could of.

You said Park Up used some policies from CPAG, what were they?

JUSTIN: There were 5 or 6 policies – pretty accepted ones, like keeping the Housing New Zealand dividend and reinvesting it into housing.

JO: There was [a policy] that no family should be without a home, or making a law that no one should be homeless. They were pretty simple and there were a few policies that came from when they did Hikoi for Homes but we shortened it and just had 5 points that we knew people could remember. When it came to the media we really wanted to have a short message, and when other people were interviewed they actually said some of the points.

JUSTIN: Basically, have an actual plan around housing that is actually aimed at addressing needs rather than this ad hoc ‘the market will fix it without us thinking about it’ approach. Actually address the social housing shortage by doing a high level of building. Prioritise housing for children particularly in areas where there are a lot of children and health issues. We’re seeing social housing providers tend to gravitate towards the elderly because it is a slightly less risky place to do social housing within  - so there probably needs to be a realignment there. A warrant of fitness for rental properties., adequate subsidies for landlords to insulate their houses. So that's probably outside the social housing space, that’s just the low income rent space. And review the accommodation supplement, that is such a big issue: its just this middle-class landlord benefit scheme. It gouges the government of money and lines the pockets of developers.

Yeah, so Alan Johnson has done a lot of research around the accommodation supplement – do you see any way to get out of that system?

JUSTIN: I think if you took it away it would be a very short term piece of pain. People will pay what they can afford for rent, not this inflated level of rent  - it is artificially keeping the rental market high. For me, I am not a policy person, but there needs to be a writing off of the debt and a starting with something new.

JO: And having a rental cap, but then people have to pay off their mortgage, and their mortgage has increased. I don't know how you would work backwards with that. But it is ridiculous. And also, often the accommodation supplement isn't enough anyway for families.

JUSTIN: But i know people whose rent goes up every year, and potentially their rent was low to begin with, but the accommodation supplement just goes up and materially it makes no difference to them. It just means their landlord gets an extra $10 each year and the government is footing the bill. It's just not a smart system. All it's doing is helping the landlord keep ahead of interest rates. We’re not housing experts and that’s the problem with housing. It's so complicated,  there’s so many levels and once you get bogged down in the details really it become too hard for most people. And really it's not our job as the general public to come up with the solutions. We vote for a government and policies that are supposed to make our society safer and better, and that’s all we were trying to say with our protests.

The accommodation supplement is interesting because it came out of this whole neoliberal agenda, like you should have a choice whether you’re in a state house or private rental, you should have a choice and be supported in the same way. So it comes back to the idea that it's the system, that the system isn’t working and it needs to change. And like you say, we don’t need to come up with the policies and the reforms, and the tiddly bits – that isn’t our job.

JUSTIN: And often that gets thrown back on you, they say, ‘well you can't do that – that won't fix it’, well actually it's not our job to tweak policy and fix it. Last election the Labour government made their whole election campaign about the capital gains tax, which is one lever but it's not a silver bullet. And they backed themselves into a corner by making it out like it was. Now they’ve pulled back form that completely. It's just a whole series of levers that need to be pulled.

Can you share some of the difficulties the Park Up for Homes campaign had and the successes that came out of it?

JO: Initially it was great, because we had a lot of fresh momentum and everyone was on the same page. Everyone was able to combine their skills and work together in a team. As it progressed it got harder because we had different people wanting to engage differently, and who had different expectations.

JUSTIN: I think with any of these movements you get a group of people, maybe the very experienced hard-line activists, and they want to push these movements towards being more confrontational. Then you have people who are sympathetic of the issue but want to keep it way more moderate and mellow and they tend to overemphasise the need for safety, to be careful and not piss anyone off. We tried to run the middle line. Then you have people who really like the idea but want it to be exactly how they want it to be. You get that right through everything, so it was trying to keep the message very simple. So that was the challenge, someone would come in and want to run it tightly or you get someone who wants to storm the gates of John Key’s house, or do something that will really provoke the police. But can I add that we also had some absolute super stars who worked so hard following the Māngere event to keep the momentum going and helping coordinate the other events and without them it may have not gone past one event.  

JO: You have people who try to tack on other things, ‘oh you need to do this as well’, or asking ‘how are you helping the homeless’. In the end we had a simple idea and it wasn’t about going to places homeless people stay. We kept it away from the homeless because they might not want us to be there.

JUSTIN: A lot of criticism came from left-wing people who said: 'this isn’t going to fix homelessness so what’s the point? It's just one night, and I don't see you down on Queen St every night so therefore this is pointless.' That’s a silly point of view because those people aren’t down on Queen St themselves. There’s a confusion about when you do something in public, does that mean its the silver bullet for everything in the world? Sometimes people, particularly idealistic people, really want every new piece of protest action to solve everything, and that was some of the feedback we got. Some people said, ‘oh this is such a waste of time because you’re not going to fix homelessness’. Well actually it's a slow game, it's a long game. You start by tacking away at general discourse, general narrative, and you get the middle class, middle New Zealand on board, so when it comes to them voting they do think about these issues. You’re never going to solve everything in one night, or one series of protests.

JO: It wasn’t like we were saying, oh now we know what it's like to be homeless. It wasn’t about that. It was simple, something families could come to, and because they came one night they felt engaged. And getting people engaged – that was the one thing we were wanting to do mainly.

JUSTIN: I think people need to be taken on a journey. And these things are mountaintop  experiences or a touch point in their activist or political engagement journey. But there are also going to be other things like signing petitions, liking a Facebook page, going along to a meeting, maybe voting more regularly, taking an interest who and what the policies are. We‘re so quick to write people off, or write ideas off, and say that they don’t fix the problem. We felt we were just trying to create a touch point for people. And we weren’t the only thing.

JO: There was Te Puea marae, they were being active, doing stuff for the homeless. They came to our thing, and people engaged in both, we had different roles in addressing the homeless issue.

JUSTIN: That’s the thing, not trying to be the fix all. We did raise some money for providers, but that wasn’t the point of it.

JO: We had certain strengths. Justin was good with the media, doing interviews and press releases, and Facebook. We knew how to do social media and we had connections. That was what worked well, we worked to our strengths. We weren't like Te Puea – there was no way we could ever run something like that, so they were perfect at  doing that. So working to your strengths is key.

JUSTIN: One challenge was we all got sick. It was the middle of winter and we were sleeping in cars. Everyone got sick at some point, and life came in and took over.

JO: By the second one lots of us had been sick and the energy goes a little bit.

JUSTIN: It meant a lot of us were more hands off and allowed other groups to own it.

And then CPAG ended the campaign?

JO: Yes, so their funding ended, so they called it. But I think if people want to keep doing it then its fine, and if they want to have the same ideas behind it. It was more that CPAG wanted to pull back financially.

JUSTIN: We just wanted to ease off because like I said before, it was a touch point for people. And I do see similar stuff happening if in the new year, closer to the election probably there will be a greater need to re-engage in these issues.

JO: But it might have a different flavour and you need to let things evolve sometimes.

JUSTIN: You also don't want to overemphasise these issues constantly because then you create an empathy fatigue in the public. It's good to push and pull, push and pull, come and go. And it's about timing, that was the thing. If we had run this three years ago it probably would have had no traction. We tried to catch the wave of interest that was in the media and in the public. Te Puea had just started their stuff, so it meshed really well. So they started the weekend we announced what we were going to do. So both things started at the same time. So it meant people who saw what they were doing were more interested in what we were doing and vice versa

JO: There were a lot of articles about families being homeless at this time.

So did you have connections with Te Puea before you made that announcement?

JUSTIN: I’ve been in there with my work and they were basically saying they had it all under control. And so there was nothing for us to do at that point for them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JUSTIN: The only thing I’d want to add is activism and protest needs to think about building consensus, and I think we can get too oppositional in our approach to pushing agendas and issues that are important and making it really ‘them against us’. For us, for those who started it at least, it was wanting to build a consensus of support and seeing the collective idea, that we have collective values as a country, as people. So lets try get people to see that and get on board with that and not be apathetic about the issues because actually these are all our issues. That's one thing I feel. Thought needs to go into how do you do that more regularly.

There was a social movements conference a few weeks ago, and someone was talking about this kind of common sense, of consensus, and I think it's Gramsci, the Italian academic, that social change happens when what’s common and what’s ‘sensible’ shifts. When that consensus shifts, that’s when you start seeing the people who you vote in start reflecting changing times more.

JUSTIN: And it's not always what's literally common, it's creating the sense that these things should be common. A collective sense of not feeling so good about what is currently common, and wanting to choose something better, and actually collectively choosing that.

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