Patients, recently released prisoners filling Wellington Night Shelter

Wellington Night Shelter manager Mike Leon, left, at a social housing protest.
Jim Chipp/Fairfax NZ

Wellington Night Shelter manager Mike Leon, left, at a social housing protest.

Wellington's Night Shelter has gone from last resort to first port of call for many, including psychiatric patients and released prisoners.

Reduced availability of supported accommodation has resulted in more released prisoners and psychiatric patients going straight to the Night Shelter.

From the beginning of November until the end of February, the shelter took in 17 men with psychiatric conditions, including addiction, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

One was referred by a court, one from the prison service, one from police and four from community health services.

Another remand prisoner was released to the Night Shelter as a bail condition.

Mike Leon has worked at the shelter for 20 years.

"It's like patient dumping," he said.

Te Ara Pai - the Stepping Stones to Wellness policy - for psychiatric patients continued a trend of reducing funding for supported accommodation houses, with some of the money redeployed towards more advocates trying to help people into a shrinking housing supply.

"There is not enough low-income accommodation," Leon said.

Capital & Coast District Health Board communications manager Jannel Carter said the hospital discharged only two patients to the Night Shelter last year, but others might not have gone where they told staff they would be staying.

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Leon said referrals from Wellington Hospital's psychiatric ward had become quite common until a few months ago.

"Then I said pretty much we were not taking them unless we were involved in the discharge planning.

"We started to get 'non-referrals' - because we don't get any discharge paperwork."

In a recent case, the shelter admitted an elderly man with psychotic symptoms.

The man was "reluctantly" readmitted to the ward after Leon forced a mental health assessment.

The man was moved into respite care and the day before discharge from there, Leon received a call from hospital staff promising support if he would accept the man into the shelter.

"All support fell over," Leon said.

The client was re-admitted to the ward, assessed as needing long-term psycho-geriatric care, then another attempt was made to discharge him to the shelter.

In another recent case, a prisoner with significant mental health issues was released with no benefit, medical support or address.

Applications for benefits for prisoners can be lodged before release, but are not processed until the release date. At best, process time was 10 days, Leon said.

The $350 Steps to Freedom payment was not enough for any accommodation, he said.

The shelter had tried to engage with the prison service over the years to try to plan some of the discharges a couple of months in advance, "but they never do anything".

"The probation service has a better relationship with us."

Community Probation Service lower north island operations manager Matire Kupenga-Wanoa said the department worked with Housing New Zealand, the Salvation Army and other supported accommodation providers.

Releasing prisoners to the Night Shelter was the last resort for prisoners and used only on a short-term basis.

When an offender was staying there the department worked closely with shelter staff.

The shelter was not considered supervised accommodation and offenders subject to supervision conditions would not be released there.

In 2013, the Corrections Department introduced the Out of Gate service to help discharged prisoners adjust to life on the outside when they were most at risk of re-offending.

Public safety was the primary concern when assessing the suitability of an address, Kupenga-Wanoa said.

When suitable accommodation could not be found, offenders could be placed in short-term accommodation.

"This temporary measure is a last resort and the utmost care is taken to ensure the safety of the public as well as the offender."

 - The Wellingtonian

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