Hearts of gold and pockets of lint

Metiria and I at the 2016 local body election night celebration. 📷 by Heather Moore, former co-convenor of the Dunedin Greens.

To begin: Please be careful with what I have chosen to share in this piece. It could very easily throw me into homelessness but it felt too important not to share it.

I have a lot of time and space in my heart for the courageous, brilliant co-leader of the Green Party, Metiria Turei. She has inspired me for a very long time and I have been privileged enough to begin to get to know her, albeit sporadically (this wahine toa never has a break ya know!), through the mahi we do together in the Greens.

I was in the audience in Auckland last month as Metiria stood on that stage and told the entire party, and the media behind us, that she had technically committed benefit fraud so that she could afford to feed her child, Piupiu. Metiria was a little older than myself at the time, 23, and she was a single mum. She claimed what she estimates to be around $40 extra a week on her benefit because she did not disclose to Work and Income that she had flatmates who helped to pay the rent. This meant she could afford food.

I know many students who have been in similar positions to Metiria. I have had two classmates this year alone find themselves, and their children homeless. I have been too close to homelessness myself just this year, having to choose between paying the bills or buying groceries and some weeks not having enough for either after I pay the rent.

My Independent Circumstances Allowance of $220 a week does not do it’s job. I am eligible for a Supported Living Payment but I cannot find a case manager who will let me apply. Work and Income stopped my disability allowance without any warning in Feburary. I have skipped class on days where I haven’t been able to afford to eat because I don’t want my rumbling stomach to bother my classmates. I have dumpster dived. I have silently accumulated a $4000 overdraft just buying groceries so I wouldn’t have to ask anybody else for help. I have had to accept financial help from my Twitter whānau to live. If I disclosed this financial assistance from the Twittersphere to Studylink, I would have my allowance halted for several weeks, I would be unable to pay my rent and I would become homeless.

One night early in 2016, we were supposed to have a Dunedin Greens branch meeting, only I arrived and it had been changed last minute to a branch executive meeting due to the nature of the mahi needing doing. I was invited to stay, but I said I would rather go home as I hadn’t been able to stretch my grocery budget to cover the last few days of my week, and I just wanted to go to bed.

And from behind a filing cabinet, I hear Metiria’s voice calling out “is that Scout?!”, and she’s standing up and marching towards me and she already has her wallet out, and she tries to give me a $20 note. I knew, back then, that accepting financial help without declaring it to Studylink was considered benefit fraud and I froze and shook my head. Her face seemed to change. She stuck the $20 note in my shirt pocket and walked away.

It took until that day a few weeks ago in Auckland for me to realize that Metiria did that because she understood where I was. She’d been there, only she had been there with a tiny, wonderful baby who would have starved without the extra financial support from Work and Income.

Not all of us have to do these things to survive, but many of us are one accident, one illness, one car breakdown away from living on the dole with a pocket full of lint. Many of us are on the dole because we have disabilities, and there are limitations to the work we can do.

I work 40 to 60 hour weeks in a volunteer capacity, looking after people in Dunedin who need a bit of help. If I was paid minimum wage for that my average income each week would be $787. I do this on top of studying to become a counsellor. I have a disability, but I can volunteer because I can adapt the schedule and work I do to fit my needs — some weeks I struggle to get out of bed due to chronic pain. At present, there are no work options suitable for me in Dunedin. That has not stopped me applying for every suitable job I’ve seen, and some unsuitable ones, for the last 4 years. In that time I’ve had one 6 week contract.

Metiria campaigned politically while she was a student, because she knew the hardships she was facing were wrong. I campaign politically for a better future too, and I’m proud to have my colours nailed firmly to the mast.

I am eternally grateful to Metiria for what she admitted that day. We have never had a conversation about Work and Income like this in my entire lifetime.

Metiria’s story is a catalyst for change, and I have a lot of respect for the mana it takes to put yourself on the line to save the lives of others. One day, when I am a elected politician too, I hope to have HALF the mana and integrity that she has shown the world in her time in parliament. I #standwithMetiria because #IamMetiria, and you should too.

Readers, if you have the cash, don’t forget to buy a few of the homeless folk in your town a hot drink or drop them some coin today.

Noho ora mai rā,