Money woes put homeless court at risk

NICOLE PRYOR
Last updated 05:00 25/11/2012
homeless man
COURT FOR THE HOMELESS: The aim is to get the homeless off the streets and back into society.
Gary North
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
NEW PHASE: Gary North is about to graduate from the New Beginnings Court.

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The country's specialist court for the homeless has gone cap in hand, begging for funding.

Based in Auckland, the New Beginnings Court deals with homeless people's minor crimes.

Breaking away from the traditional model of sentencing, it sets up the offender with a plan to help them with addiction and finds them a place to live.

The aim is to get the homeless off the streets and back into society. So far, the two-year pilot has been lauded for its achievements.

The figure are impressive:

Arrest rates for those involved down by 66 per cent;

Bed nights in prison down by 78 per cent during participation in the programme, and by 60 per cent afterwards;

Emergency department visits down by more than 15 per cent.

To continue, the court needed eight backers who would put in $10,000 each to fund the vital role of programme co-ordinator.

In October, only half those backers had indicated they would stay in the programme.

One month later, after the head of Lifewise, John McCarthy, and Judge Tony Fitzgerald flagged the crisis to the Auckland Council, they are waiting for one more agency, Housing New Zealand, to either continue or pull out.

"They were initially going to pay in kind with extra housing, but we gave them the option to reconsider," McCarthy said.

"If Housing New Zealand decides not to fund the $10,000 for the role, it will make it more difficult to keep the role permanently. We can carry on for now, but it does make it more of a challenge."

Though the court now has funds to go through to 2014, beyond that the future is unclear.

The programme co-ordinator's employer, Inspector Andrew Coster of Auckland police, said the position would stay alive.

"The majority have confirmed they will continue. It's a worthwhile investment."

He said lowered court appearances and hospital admissions had saved staff time and money.

"We have had some examples of people who have been regularly arrested for minor offending prior to the court.

"There's been a significant reduction of offending, and for some, a complete cessation post-court - and it's a pretty challenging range of problems that feature in their lives."

COURT HELPS END CYCLE OF DISPAIR

 

The walls of Gary North's Mt Eden apartment are bare but for his certificate of graduation from the New Beginnings Court.

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North, who was homeless in Auckland for five years, graduated from the court this August.

He moved to Auckland from Wellington, with not a cent to his name, to look for work and get off the sickness benefit. This did not eventuate, and combined with a drinking problem, North ended up sleeping rough in parks across the city.

"I was a bit of a drinker, and I would drink in town, in parks and things like that. Where there was a liquor ban sign. Getting caught over and over again," he said.

"The fines mounted up and all that, I knew I had a problem and I needed to sort it out."

There were several times when he found it hard to cope, even though he had help from the City Mission.

"You get situations, at night, where it's like, oh my god, I wish I had a place to go - four walls, you know. It got rough at times, it really did," he said.

"It's very lonely on the street, when you're by yourself, it's a lonely time, I suppose."

On one occasion, North said he woke up in a jail cell to see, not another lawyer, but Jo Ryan from the New Beginnings court.

"She came and saw me one morning. I was in a cell. She told me about the process, about the New Beginnings court, you know, and that you could graduate from it, and you get a placard."

He said the support he got through the programme, as well as the transition period once he finished, started a whole new phase of his life.

"Police - they just lock you up and that's it. There's no lifeline there. They don't fix the cause, basically - the judge is fixing the cause."

Now North is close to finishing his course in occupational health and safety and wants to work in a kitchen.

- Sunday Star Times

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