A report on a public meeting held in Rotorua, Aotearoa/New Zealand about homelessness.
On 15th March approximately 350 people gathered at a Bowling Club in the Glenholme area of Rotorua. They congregated for a meeting sponsored by local [Centre-Right oppositiion] National Party MP Todd McClay. The purpose of the hui was to discuss the problem of homelessness in the city. Well, that was the supposed intention. Instead what resulted was a well-orchestrated exercise in white-haired, overwhelmingly white-skinned rabble raising.
Any capable con-artist or dodgy gambler knows the way to ensure you can stack a deck of cards is simply to choose the cards that comprise that deck from the outset and let the rest of it take care of itself, while you eventually scoop up the winnings. McClay, looking like a Ken doll tossed in the reject bin, began proceedings by saying that he had decided not to permit the input of any Government agencies at the meeting. His supposed reason being “I want this meeting to be yours”. AWSM can independently confirm that at least one employee of the Ministry of Social Development working in the field of homelessness had approached McClay with relevant statistics and other info that could have grounded the meeting in more than sketchy anecdotes, but was rebuffed. Clearly, it was the latter he wanted, more than a reasoned, fact-based look at the issue.
Despite saying the meeting was for its attendees, McClay opened it by allowing himself to begin by voicing his own opinion. This consisted of providing his personal cherry-picked statistics, mentioning the problem of gangs, that people are being bussed to Rotorua expressly to house them here and that the city had “…become a dumping ground for a wider homeless problem” though “It is hard to get information from Government agencies”. Having already dismissed opportunities to access such data ahead of time, this hardly stands up. But there wasn’t much time to dwell on this, as he laid out some ground rules for the meeting then introduced other invited speakers.
Who were these additional scheduled orators? Nobody from government agencies, no Government MPs, no homeless advocates, no NGO-workers, no Maori wardens, nobody representing a community group or Iwi. In short, no informed person might seriously call into question or disrupt the view McClay had already expressed. First up was Reg Hennessy, owner of a prominent pub in the CBD. Poor Reg, a very pakeha-looking pakeha, had “suffered racial abuse” from persons unknown. A stone had been thrown at one of his windows at the pub. Who had done this was not made clear but the audience was left to draw their own conclusions. Afterall as Citizen Hennessy informed them there are “young juvenile gangs roaming the streets”. Lest anyone fear he was getting carried away, he made it clear that “it’s important not to politicise the issue” which was immediately followed by noting that “Todd” had replied to his email about his travails. There’s also the fact that um, Reg was standing in front of a banner with “Todd’s” name on it, but yeah, let’s not politicise the issue.
Next up was Brett Wilson, the head of Watchdog Security. He spoke of gang influence in the streets and painted a picture of terrorised ordinary folk who could get little support because “Government agencies are facilitating bad behaviour and enabling the behaviour”. Representing a private wannabe police force, he also took a few shots at the police, though being careful to avoid attacking the average cop. Rather the problem is “…the police hierarchy using intellectual weasel words” rather than dealing with the problem since they were acting like a social agency but aren’t really one. Since somewhat surprisingly you might think, there was no representative from the police or as noted, any government agencies present, Wilson’s comments weren’t formally challenged.
The third of the formal speakers mumbled his name and stood to address the crowd. He told tales of drug dealing, public urination during the day, cars speeding all over the place, and [shocked gasps] an instance of consensual fornication in a bus shelter. It should be noted that he was not regaling us with a confessional story of participation in any such acts, rather these came from something called “speaking from experience and feedback”. On second thoughts, the bus shelter thing could’ve been a personal story if that’s what was meant by “experience”. On third thoughts, maybe we should be fair and assume the mystery mumbler really was relating things he had merely witnessed or heard second, third, fourth, or etc-hand. Anyway, his suggested remedy for the actions related was “We need security cameras on every corner”. Interestingly, this draconian turn towards absolute surveillance isn’t just the preserve of wingnuts, since the local council, headed by the liberal ex-Labour Minister Stevie Chadwick, is currently considering the idea of putting AI-style surveillance cameras throughout the entire CBD and even suburban areas (https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/ldr/438106/rotorua-safety-500k-fund-more-cameras-ai-proposed).
Following the 3 formal speakers, the mic was open for the audience to contribute their views. There were plenty of these, provided freely and with great gusto. Greg Dyson, a representative of the local New World supermarket complained of daily shoplifting which apparently had its origins in some instances due to “…these people living together infesting 8 rooms in the same motel”. A remedy offered for this being strict nightly curfews and bag searches as conditions for being housed. That these were actual people, rather than an infestation of insects and that they are still entitled to freedom of movement and a presumption of innocence, was easily lost in all the reasoned discourse shared. A woman called Stella described “imported homelessness” adding that “…we need to stop homeless people being shipped in…they need to go home”. Apparently, this importation of alien ‘outsiders’ from other parts of the same country was because “This Labour government created this problem”. Previously, as you will all remember, under the National government, headed by a multi-millionaire with a holiday home in Hawaii, everyone lived like Kings.
It would be misleading to say there were no dissenting voices from the floor. They were in a distinct minority however and only gained access to the mic late in the meeting after a number of people had left. A small business owner in the CBD had conducted her own research using the rigorous methodology of going out of her shop and asking homeless people she encountered where they had come from. She discovered to her surprise that they had come from exotic foreign places with names like Hamilton and Tauranga. Local homeless advocate Tiny Dean, who was constantly heckled, rejoindered by pointing out the people he works directly with on a daily basis sometimes left Rotorua because they were victims of rape and or other domestic abuse and needed to escape geographically. He asked, had the shopkeeper bothered to ask the folks she met outside her shop why they had come here? Another contributor was a matua [man] who stood and calmly pointed out “Welcome to the Maori world. We’ve been dealing with this for decades! What’s missing here is aroha [love]”.
The meeting was closed by card-sharp McClay regaining the microphone and summing up what he saw as the main themes of the meeting. These all just happened to coincide with his own initial perspective. However, as a long-term MP, it was only natural he should feel the anger and concerns of the participants who had been given the opportunity to voice their concerns within a framework of well-considered, reasoned debate. Anyone who believes that is living in a house of cards.