Rough end of street life bites

Last updated 05:00 14/01/2013
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KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

HOMELESS: Steve Walters, 58, pictured in his night shelter cubicle, has been staying there for five weeks after he was forced to leave an Easy Access flat for people with disabilities in Kilbirnie.

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A year ago tomorrow Ben Hana - better known as Blanket Man - died, after years of hard living on Wellington's streets. Since then, the number of people roughing it in the city has, by some counts, doubled. Ben Heather reports.

They start gathering before 9.30am, huddled around the locked door in a back alley in downtown Wellington.

Some have been awake since before 7.30am after being ushered out of the Wellington night shelter. Others have emerged from secret sleeping dens, hidden in the back-end of buildings or makeshift camps in the town belt.

When the doors open at 10am, there is a small but orderly rush. Many want food, others want to withdraw money and many just need advice.

This ritual is carried out every morning at the Downtown Community Ministry which provides a food bank, advice and even banking services to people on low incomes.

Director Stephanie McIntyre says the ministry deals with about 400 clients each quarter. Roughly half are homeless - some living on the street, others couch- surfing or boarding.

While the number using the service was steady, their overall living conditions had deteriorated.

The number of clients living at the "sharp end" - sleeping rough on the streets or in the night shelter - doubled early last year to more than 50 and has remained high since.

Homeless agencies estimate that between 50 and 100 people live on the streets or in emergency housing in Wellington.

Wellington night shelter manager Mike Leon says that in the early 1990s there were fewer than 30. So who are these people and how do they end up on the street?

Most are unemployed men, usually middle-aged, and many have alcohol or drug problems and some form of mental illness. Before ending up on the streets, most were already living precariously in boarding houses or couch-surfing with friends.

Once on the street, it becomes increasingly difficult to get off it.

Without a fixed abode or identification they cannot set up a bank account. Without a bank account they cannot receive a Work and Income payment. Without an income, they cannot get housed.

If a homeless person does get into a home, it often becomes an informal gathering place for his homeless friends, which can eventually lead to eviction.

Ms McIntyre says many factors were behind the rise in sharp-end homelessness, but a chronic shortage of affordable housing was the biggest.

Upgrades to Wellington City Council and Housing NZ social housing during the past year had taken hundreds of homes offline at a time when demand was rising.

"There is one man living in a hole in the ground. He has been on the Housing New Zealand list for months."

Night shelter resident Don, 45, says he has been on the waiting list for a council or Housing NZ unit for nine months. He has been living at the Wellington night shelter, renting a private room for $125 a week.

He pays for the rent out of his invalid's benefit for a medical condition that makes it painful to walk or stand.

Don has lived precariously for years but says it is becoming increasingly easy for people to end up without a home.

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"The private rents are too high for people on welfare so where do you go? There is a waiting list for council and Housing New Zealand places."

He sleeps on the street occasionally but does not like the label "homeless".

"I'm technically homeless but I'm not out there getting drunk every night."

Under New Zealand's definition - introduced in 2009 - homelessness describes anyone without a secure home, from sleeping rough to boarding houses.

Agencies that support the homeless in Wellington say with high unemployment and tightening social spending more are being shoved towards the sharp end.

Mr Leon deals with the sharp end between 5.30pm every night - when he opens the doors to about 20 homeless men - and 7.30am the next morning when he has to kick them out.

He sees about 20 new faces every month, and says their circumstances are increasingly dire. "We are seeing more and more desperate people."

Mr Leon agrees a housing shortage is one of the biggest problems. "Housing New Zealand isn't building anymore, council isn't building anymore but the need is increasing. Where does that lead?"

Wellington City Council has about 2300 social housing units in the city and Housing NZ 8975, although only 1600 are in Wellington city.

Both agencies have been upgrading their housing stock in the past year, but are keen to emphasise how all displaced tenants are successfully rehoused.

Neither organisation is planning to increase their housing stock but talk enthusiastically about "partnering" with third parties to build affordable housing.

Last May, Housing NZ kicked out 131 tenants from its Gordon Wilson complex after the building was found to be quake prone.

In the Wellington region, the number of Housing NZ homes remains steady. However, while available housing hasn't shrunk, the number of people on the high priority waiting list has more than tripled in the past two years.

The problem has finally sparked action or at least talk. In May, social agencies, Wellington City Council and representatives of the homeless community met to develop a plan to end homelessness. The resulting draft strategy will be made public next month, with many agencies, including the Downtown Community Ministry and the Wellington night shelter, optimistic about its success.

But Don, who took part in the talks last year, is sceptical. "I was quite enthusiastic at the time but I'm still waiting for something. It's starting to seem like lip service."

Even if the homeless services work seamlessly and are well-funded, they will still run up against many homeless people who refuse to admit they even have a problem.

A young Chinese man who spoke to The Dominion Post had been living in a car in Mt Victoria for two months after losing his job. He described the arrangement as a holiday.

Another night shelter regular, who gave his name as John, portrayed street life as bit of a party, recalling how he and his friends would stay up all night getting drunk on the kerbside dregs left by retiring bar patrons. His argument against housing was that rent simply sucked up funds that could be better employed buying drugs and alcohol.

"Some people want to remain homeless to have more money to spend. I pay $70 [a week at the night shelter] here and get more money for piss."

Asked whether he would prefer to have a home, John sidesteps the question. "This is the best city to be homeless. Here it is really easy."

SHELTER WAS NOT FUTURE HE HOPED FOR

For Steve Walters the worst thing about homelessness is boredom.

Each day the 58-year-old leaves the night shelter at 7.30am and wanders the streets of Wellington.

Sometimes, if he has enough money, he will buy some beer and find a quiet corner to drink. "I just walk around and try to find something to entertain myself. The boredom is very hard."

Today he is visiting drug and alcohol services to see if he can enter a rehabilitation programme. It won't be the first time, but he hopes this time it will work.

Life wasn't always as precarious for Steve. As a younger man, he worked as a computer programmer for New Zealand Post. He also worked as an analyst for several government agencies and major banks.

However, alcohol has been a major part of his life, even while he was employed. One night after leaving a bar, he was found at the bottom of Plimmer Steps, with a cracked and bleeding head covered in glass. The injury was more than 15 years ago, but Steve say it has led to mental difficulties contributing to his precarious living arrangement.

Steve struggles to concentrate or remember events clearly. He receives a sickness benefit for chronic anxiety and depression. "I tried to go back to work but my concentration had changed quite a bit. I've got all sort of complications with the cracked head."

In December, the six-month lease on his Easy Access flat - short-term housing for people with disabilities - in Kilbirnie expired and he was out on the street for the first time.

His drinking - which he says was manageable in the flat - has become heavier, partly out of boredom, and his health has deteriorated. "This is not something I would have put down in my desires or hopes for the future."

"I don't think of myself as a habitual drunk. It's just that circumstances can force you into places you don't want to be."

- The Dominion Post

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