Eighteen-month-old Julia Alatina is smiley, snotty-nosed, and dotted with flea bites.
She’s trusting; exchanging her toy broom, made of sticks, for a stranger’s hand to toddle off down the bloodstained hallway of a south Auckland lodge for the down and out.
There are six prams in that hallway, more in others. Julia’s not the only child sharing a bed with her parents in what is essentially a halfway house.
Those on the frontline reckon kids living in boarding houses have it as bad as kids living in cars – and should be fast-tracked by the government into safer accommodation.
Jeff Alatina and Julia Mika moved with their little daughter to a two-by-three metre room at the Pacific Pearl Lodge three months ago. They pay $250 per week, bills included, and share kitchen and bathroom facilities with around 50 other tenants.
The family’s belongings are piled against walls, almost touching the mouldy roof. Plates of half-eaten dinner are stashed on top of stacks of clothes and saucepans. A frilly green dress and delicately knitted cardigan – baby Julia’s church outfit – hang above the rolled-up foam mattress the family share at night. They traded its bed frame for floor space.
Plunket’s national clinical advisor Karen Magrath says overcrowding is now commonplace; it stems from a lack of quality, affordable housing.
Julia Mika, Jeff Alatina and their 18-month-old daughter Julia have lived in this room in a Favona boarding house for three months.
“Many families just can’t rent a whole house on their own,” she says. “That or they can’t afford to heat their whole house, so live together in one room to keep warm.”
Plunket nurses note families of up to six sharing a single room, around the country, daily. They also note the cases of eczema, asthma, flu, skin infections, and sudden infant death syndrome that partner jam-packed living conditions.
Plunket doesn’t keep tabs on whether the families they visit are in official boarding houses or private residences rented out room by room; overcrowding’s health impact and cause tend to be the same whatever the establishment.
Mika says her tiny flea-infested room was the only option available for her family.
The 21-year-old mum spends most of her time locked in the room. She is wary of other residents, who “are always fighting and drunk”; there’s blood seeped into the carpet outside her door, and beer bottles strewn around the building.
She hopes Alatina’s new job at an oyster farm will let them save enough money to rent a house; “it’s not safe here,” she says in broken English.
HOMEWORK AMONG FLEAS AND FIGHTS
South Auckland social worker Anne is currently helping around 20 families get out of boarding houses around south Auckland, and her organisation has dealt with hundreds of others. She didn’t want her full name published out of fear it would hinder access to those families.
“The reality is that families can languish in boarding houses for years,” she warns.
Anne paints a bleak future for baby Julia, should she get stuck: “Living this way really denigrates the dignity of a person; it touches everything – their health, psychology, education, and employment.”
“When you sleep in a room infested with cockroaches and fleas, surrounded by parties and fights each night, how can you be in the right mind frame for school the next morning?” she asks. “Where’s the space, even, to do your homework?”
Boarding houses can be an education in themselves and many do not have a strict door policy.
They’re home to drug addicts and the mentally-disturbed; to sex offenders and violent criminals placed there by Corrections after serving jail-time; anyone unable to convince a landlord they would make an upstanding tenant. Bad company for kids at impressionable ages, says Anne.
Former residents speak of sneaking in to live rent-free for weeks before being found out. One manager complained to Corrections this year of discovering an obsessive bomb-maker and an unreformed rapist, placed there by parole officers without a background briefing or warning to fellow residents.
Anne says it’s not unusual for mothers to stand guard outside bathrooms as their daughters shower or use the toilet, to ward off opportunistic lechers.
Julia’s dad describes her as “explorative”, and worries when she runs out the door of their little room.
Some boarding houses have child bans, but Anne says she’s heard of managers letting families stay anyway and telling them to hide their kids if the police or council inspectors roll up.
The Ministry of Social Development does not deem boarding houses safe places for families to be placed for emergency accommodation. Instead, MSD refers them to self-contained motel units.
“This is ironic,” says Anne, “because if a family applies for emergency accommodation when they’re living in a boarding house they’re going to be told ‘no, you are already adequately housed’.”
It’s Anne’s mission to prove otherwise.
“Life in lodges is pretty similar to sleeping in a car or a garage, then going into someone else’s house to use the kitchen and bathroom.”
She documents the maggots, the leaks, the one bed for a family of five, the unisex bathroom shared by dozens. Then she insists the MSD conduct a housing assessment for families she works with.
Housing assessments “most often” lead to the family getting put on the social housing register or offered emergency accommodation, says Anne. “But 10 out of 10 times a family will not get offered an assessment unless I am on the phone too, asking for it.”
When asked what she wants from life, baby Julia’s mother thinks of the basics first.
“Clothes for the baby,” Mika says. “And some plates.”
Then she looks at her daughter and reflects that she mainly wants happiness for Julia.
“I am so proud of her already,” she says.
“Julia is a very kind girl – if someone is crying, she gives them her toys … even if they are mean. This is what I try to teach her.”