“Homelessness is quite hidden among older people,” reflects Bonnie Robinson, chief executive of HBH Senior Care & Living, in Auckland. Because older people generally won’t sleep rough, or in cars, the problem goes largely unnoticed by the public or the media, she says.
But Robinson reels off a number of examples of people living in very poor situations, who have contacted HBH for help. She mentions a 75 year old sleeping on a sofa at friends, a single woman living in what is effectively a converted garage, a woman living in a “unit” that does not have its own kitchen.
“Dampness, unaffordability of rents, houses unsuitable for disability are all significant problems amongst those who have contacted us,” says Robinson.
It was its social conscience rather than its balance sheets that drove HBH to recently purchase Stevenson Village in Howick and do their bit to help the social housing crisis.
Stevenson Village is a social housing village for older people, comprising 36 units. It was founded in 1977 by the RSA and the then Mayor of Howick. The Trust that has owned and operated the village decided to cease operating and put it on the market. The tenants, all older people, were given six months’ notice to leave.
“We knew that if we didn’t purchase Stevenson Village, chances were that a property developer would have bought it, bowled it and put up a heap of $1.5 million townhouses – and Stevenson would have been lost forever,” says Robinson.
HBH Senior Living is a mission-driven charitable organisation based in Howick, Auckland, focused on helping the most vulnerable older people in society. It started as Howick Baptist Healthcare in 1977 with a rest home and has grown over the years to now provide a full continuum of care from day care programmes and independent living options, through to rest home, respite and hospital-level care.
Robinson admits that the Stevenson purchase is a risky move for HBH. The village was purchased entirely on debt, so is a major commitment for the organisation.
In recent years, social housing has cropped up on the agenda of the Retirement Villages Association’s annual conference. There appears to be more awareness of the growing problem, but reluctance among providers to invest in social housing initiatives.
Robinson says this is hardly surprising given there is no money to be made in social housing. In Auckland, especially, it simply isn’t feasible if you have to buy land and start from scratch, she says.
And yet, unless more providers take action, the problem will only worsen. Last week, the Salvation Army’s report Taking Stock; The Demand for Social Housing in New Zealand added to a growing body of research and evidence that shows New Zealand is facing a social housing crisis, particularly for our older people. The report called for between 2000 and 2500 more state and social houses per year to meet the demand, fuelled partly by more New Zealanders reaching retirement age without owning their own home.
Robinson agrees that entering retirement with a mortgage-free home will generally ensure a person escapes hardship in their later years. The problem is that trends show that an increasing number of over 65-year-olds will enter retirement without owning their own home.
Robinson says there are typically many factors that contribute to older people falling on hard times financially.
A person who is renting their home might find themselves struggling to afford rent when they stop working, finding their pension insufficient. Their rented home may no longer be suitable as they age; the steep driveway or the stairs they’ve always coped with are no longer appropriate, or the lawns and gardens become too much to maintain. Finding another rental in their community that is affordable, disability-friendly and accessible to the support services they require is not always easy.
Another situation Robinson has encountered many times is when older people have saved enough money so as not to be eligible for the accommodation supplement, but not enough to afford a suitable standard of living.
Robinson says the options are limited for older people who are struggling. Beyond council’s pensioner housing programme, and older people still living in the state house they’ve lived in for years, there are not many options available for older people.
New Zealand is in need of more social housing initiatives for older people, like those provided by the Selwyn Foundation, Abbeyfield and Salvation Army. HBH saw the purchase of Stevenson Village as a means of contributing to this solution.
In time they would like to build more units on the site, so as to meet more of the increasing need. They are also in the process of becoming a registered Community Housing Provider. While they will be tapping into available Government funding, HBH will also be looking to seek charitable grants and donations to help support Stevenson Village.
It looks like a steep mountain to climb, but Robinson says they are ready to climb it.
“We’re up for the challenge!” she says.