'Domino effect' led to Hawke's Bay mother living in van, on benefit

Source: 1News

A Hawke's Bay woman has opened up about the "domino effect" which led her to lose her home and turn to Work and Income for help.

Brianna Hihaki spoke to Breakfast on Monday about her journey, parts of which is proving inspirational to some on TikTok.

After leaving a long-term relationship in 2020, Hihaki described having to give up full-time study she had not long started when the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown happened.

She turned to work in hospitality in an effort to pay the mortgage on a home she owned with her former partner.

Hihaki said she eventually lost the house and when flatting with her two children proved unsuitable, she turned to Work and Income in March last year for help accessing accommodation.

The government department said there was no emergency housing available for her, so Hihaki sold what possessions she had and bought a 20-year-old van for herself and her children to live in.

With the help of friends and family, Hihaki managed to renovate the van to make it fit for sleeping in. With somewhere to live, she returned to studying business management and accounting, but this time part-time.

After finishing her studies, she got a part-time accounting job, but also being a beneficiary, Hihaki found herself struggling as money was being deducted from her benefit due to her work.

A colleague said Hihaki would be better off starting her own business to get ahead, so she has. She is also now living in a house.

Hihaki described her journey as a case of "just getting on with it".

Questioned about homelessness after Hihaki's interview, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says situations like Hihaki's aren't acceptable.

"We want everyone to be housed," she remarked. "We want everyone who's seeking work, to be in work."

Ardern said this is why her government has "worked so hard" to increase the amount of transitional housing and has created 10,037 public homes since it came into office.

"We're building as fast as we can to make sure we're able to meet the need that you describe."

The prime minister acknowledged the use of emergency housing special needs grants had increased, but said supports such as transitional housing aren't the final answer or the perfect solution.

Ardern denied homelessness had become worse under her government - according to Ministry of Social Development figures, last month saw 480 people living in their vehicles. At the end of 2017, this number was 108.

The Government has also spent more on emergency housing special needs grants than National did.

Ardern told Breakfast National had been capping the grants when it was last in government, so its lower spend didn't necessarily reflect the need which was out there.

"Even if people were sleeping in cars and needed shelter, there were caps, limits, to the amount that was available and the ability of people to then be housed," she stated.

"One of my biggest, most devastating things I'm aware of in the housing space is had the last government built public housing at the rate we are now, we would have almost cleared the public house waiting list. So we are playing catch up, but we're not putting artificial caps and stops to the need that exists out there."

On money being deducted from working beneficiaries, Ardern said this was why the Government had increased benefits, allowed beneficiaries to earn more before their benefit is affected and increased the family tax credit.

The prime minister also said Working for Families is being reviewed to see if it can better meet the needs of Kiwi families.