On my morning walk I feel like a character in a postcard. The beach at the end of my road – Onetangi on Waiheke Island – is my happy place. Most days, you’ll find me walking the 1.8km stretch with a dog or a friend, if I’m lucky. We always remark on how fortunate we are, especially as most of the world on our doorstep is in wintery, Covid-y lockdown hell.
But lately, my walk has become increasingly disturbing. And no, it’s not because it’s full of tourists over summer (although it is, and they are a bit annoying but hey, we have to share the paradise) but rather because it’s full of homeless people. Last Saturday I counted 27 camper vans on the ocean front. These were no flash Maui RVs but converted people movers or station wagons that were on their last legs. In the early morning all their windows were dark with closed curtains.
Before you think I am some sort of NIMBYist who is burning after freedom campers or anyone who might be wrecking the view from the bach, think again. Like I said, I am not anti-tourist. If I was, I wouldn’t be silly enough live to live in a tourist hotspot. In fact, what does unnerve me about the people living in vans on the beach is that they are not tourists. They are workers who are living on the island during summer, most likely employed in the hospitality and wine sectors.
How do I know that they’re not all just young travellers, passing through and bunking down in their crappy old camper vans, enjoying a bit camping down on the beach? One reason is because I recognise them as part of the perennial Argentinian / South American workforce that is a regular feature of the culture on Waiheke. Mainly in their 20s and 30s, these guys are an important part of the island’s transient workforce that keeps our hospitality and wineries afloat. They return to Waiheke every spring and summer to work here because there are so many jobs and they love it here. Many spend the winter season working in Queenstown or other tourist destinations.
This year, there have been more jobs than ever on the island. At the beginning of this summer, business owners estimated that there were at least 200 jobs that couldn’t be filled, partly due to a lack of seasonal workers being allowed into the country because of Covid, but also because there was nowhere for the workers to live once they got here.
Accommodation is incredibly scarce on Waiheke. Over the past decade I have lived here, I have watched dozens of families being turfed out of rental homes by landlords who have chosen the quick-and-big-bucks Airbnb route. Unless renting folk are fortunate enough to find affordable, decent accommodation, and are willing to move approximately every year when the same thing happens again, they are driven off the island, eroding the community for the sake of the tourist dollar. It feels like soon no full-time community will be left here and we will end up just another empty and soulless tourist hotspot and a place for the super-rich to collect holiday homes.
But back to the workers. Every year, Waiheke’s online accommodation pages are beset by Argentinians begging for places to rent, a place to park their vans or even pitch a tent in someone’s garden. It’s heartbreaking as we all know there is simply nowhere for them to go.
Except the beach! Lovely in summer, maybe for a week or so, but no way to live a dignified and comfortable life, which we all have a right to.
Later that day, our online community page showcased the reactions of the ‘proper’ locals (the ones who live in houses). Wide-ranging judgements and intolerances, de rigueur on Facebook, were mixed with laments that we need to house everyone in our community, especially ‘essential workers’ who serve our coffee and eggs bene on demand. Isn’t that our right?
Our rights and their rights are intertwined. Their right to housing and to be treated like valid human beings is increasing as our right to all-day breakfasts, seven days a week is diminishing. I notice that several cafes here are now operating on reduced hours because they cannot be staffed. The workers at my local beach cafe, which is always busy, told me last month they could only serve coffee and a pre-baked muffin until lunch time. ‘We have no chefs in the morning,’ they told me. ‘We have had plenty of people from Auckland [35 minutes’ ferry ride away] apply for the jobs but there’s nowhere for them to live, or they can’t afford the rents of anything that is available.’ Another restaurant informed us they regrettably had to cancel our pre-booked work function as they couldn’t find staff for that day.
So inconvenient for the expectant crowds of locals and tourists. And it’s so annoying when you can’t find a carpark at the beach before your morning walk because there are 27 camper vans there. I really wish those people would wake up and get cracking on my bacon and eggs and flat white. Really, what does one have to do on this island to get decent service?
When I finally found a carpark the other day, I noticed a young woman shuffle bleary-eyed out of the public toilets. She walked about 400 metres back to her camper van, past four beachfront houses with Sea Legs erected in the front gardens, one with an Aston Martin out the front, taking up two car spaces. I wonder what she thought?
Copyright Paulette Crowley, 2021.