Caravan Christmas for many as housing crisis continues

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As many Kiwi households prepare to head off for camping holidays over the coming weeks, others are already parked up in campervans across the country.

– Video by Nick Monro

That’s because they live there year round – unable to afford the skyrocketing rents, let alone house prices.

Some of those families have complex health needs, including Geoff Ward.

Geoff has Parkinson’s disease and his health is slowly declining. He and his wife Maureen can only afford to live in a caravan due to their benefit budget constraints.

“We’ve got three boxes of Christmas decorations in Tokoroa but we’ve got no room in the caravan for things like a Christmas tree or anything like that. Basically we’re not really going to celebrate it this year.”

Geoff and Maureen Ward can only afford to live in a caravan due to their benefit budget constraints and circumstances.

Geoff and Maureen Ward can only afford to live in a caravan due to their benefit budget constraints and circumstances. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Maureen and Geoff moved into a Bay of Plenty caravan park about five months ago. Rising house prices across the region have pushed up rents, forcing them from one town to another.

“About nine years ago, my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We did own a home but we lost that home when Geoff was made redundant and ever since then we have actually struggled,” Maureen said.

“Rentals now in Tokoroa are now up to $400 and $450 a week for a three-bedroom house, which is virtually three quarters of our benefit. So there’s just no way that we could’ve afforded to continue to stay in Tokoroa.”

Unable to afford a house, they decided to rent a caravan. It’s roughly $160 a week for a site and $175 for the caravan itself.

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The caravan is about the size of a horse float, with a compact kitchen, bathroom, lounge and bedroom.

Geoff and Maureen Ward's caravan is about the size of a horse float, with a compact kitchen, bathroom, lounge and bedroom

Geoff and Maureen Ward’s caravan is about the size of a horse float, with a compact kitchen, bathroom, lounge and bedroom Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

The couple have made immaculate use of the space, including a thriving veggie garden, and while it may seem idyllic on a hot summer’s day, it’s a nightmare situation for Geoff’s declining health.

“Although we enjoy living here, long-term this is not suitable for my husband,” Maureen said.

“As he deteriorates this is going to get to a point where he’s not going to cope with taking grey water over to the shower block and having to empty porta-potties, all that sort of stuff.”

Their budget means they have no choice, and they face a lengthy wait for accessible public housing.

‘It’s not my husband’s fault that he got sick’

Maureen is a qualified early childhood teacher, but is out of work at the moment due to an injury, so they’re both receiving benefits.

She said the payments weren’t nearly enough to cover the realities of current living costs, despite their tight budget.

“We get a power bill or a phone bill or the car breaks down, and we’re like how on earth are we going to pay that, because sometimes it can actually smash our budget completely.

“It does cause stress, I’ve cried bucketfuls at times.”

Geoff and Maureen Ward's live in a caravan while they face a lengthy wait for accessible public housing.

Geoff and Maureen Ward’s live in a caravan while they face a lengthy wait for accessible public housing. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

“It’s not my husband’s fault that he got sick. It’s not his fault.”

The caravan park they live in is full of people who know those frustrations all too well. Another resident, who cannot work due to sickness, said her caravan was all she could afford on the benefit.

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“I was in Whakatāne, I was on the emergency housing waitlist and getting hell from WINZ all the time about how much it was costing,” she said.

While her caravan is not roadworthy, she is glad to have a place to call home but said there were very few options out there.

‘Nobody in this campground are no-hopers’

Geoff and Maureen Ward's caravan isn't the only one parked full-time on campgrounds, with other families also saying they're in the same situation.

Geoff and Maureen Ward’s caravan isn’t the only one parked full-time on campgrounds, with other families also saying they’re in the same situation. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Her neighbours, a mother and young daughter, have lived there for more than two years.

“It was less of a choice than a necessity. We were sharing a house with other families for a year and a half before I found this place, so when the opportunity came to buy a caravan here and have [our] own place instead of having to share with families – at one point we were 10 people in a house with one bathroom – we jumped at it.”

She said most campgrounds in the area were full of people with similar benefit budgets, also unable to afford other accommodation, all of whom were at the whim of the campground owners.

“You don’t have any rights because you’re not supposed to live permanently in a campground … but because there’s nowhere else to go the reality is people are living full-time.”

Maureen Ward said there was a stigma attached to people living in campgrounds which made finding work hard, trapping them on the benefit and out of the housing market.

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“Nobody in this campground are no-hopers. They are good people who just can’t afford to rent or can’t afford to buy.”

Maureen Ward says there's a stigma attached to people living in campgrounds even if they were there through no fault of their own.

Maureen Ward says there’s a stigma attached to people living in campgrounds even if they were there through no fault of their own. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

She said things did not need to be this bad. If benefits were to increase she believed it would go a long way.

“The government needs to see that we are not in this position because we are lazy, we’re not in this position because my husband doesn’t want to work – he would much rather go out to work – and that we’re not going to be able to work. So why should we have to renew our medical certificate every two years.”

As she continues to wait for a change in income, or circumstances, the emergency housing waitlist she and Geoff are on continues to grow.

This month the housing register hit a record high – nearly 22,000 applicants – with the government this week advised many of those waiting are unlikely to receive a house.

So for now it’s campground Christmases as the housing crisis continues.

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