How you help the homeless

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014

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One man believes the solution to homelessness is so simple, he's taken the task on himself. Simon Day reports. 

He has a metal rod in his back, his legs, tiny and deformed, hang useless at his waist. His hands are calloused from pushing himself round on a skateboard. At 16 he was living on the streets of central Auckland.

In the middle of winter last year Angela Bevan's children told her about the young homeless boy with no legs. Bevan refused to believe that in New Zealand someone so vulnerable could be so neglected.

"I told my kids there would be no way there was a kid like that homeless in Auckland, that doesn't happen here," she said.

But then she encountered Charlie* herself. On Queen St in a group of homeless teenagers, he was riding on the back of one of his friends, the skateboard he usually pushed himself around on stolen.

The group of 16 and 17-year-olds lived in Aotea Square were surviving by begging and stealing. There was no one who looked after them.

Bevan was desperate to help Charlie but the council and Auckland Mission told her to leave him alone.

"They said that whatever I did by continuing to visit him and bring him food and check up on him was only encouraging him to stay on the street, and I didn't know what I was doing and I should just leave him be," she said.

But Bevan refused to abandon the boy. She put a photo of Charlie and his story on Facebook and appealed to Auckland for assistance.

When a friend came to drop off some food and money for the young group she told Bevan that her husband James wanted to talk to Bevan about fixing the bigger problem.

James Crow believes he has the solution to New Zealand's homelessness and he plans to do it himself. "When we first talked he said this could be a really easy problem to fix," Bevan said. "And I remember thinking I don't know about that, mate."

Crow stands by the claim. All you need to start getting people off the street is broad, accurate information on who are the most vulnerable and get them into housing as fast as possible, he says. Crow has started Gimme Shelter, inspired by a US model, where the 100,000 Homes project has found permanent accommodation for more than 101,000 homeless since July 2010.

"It was such a simple idea. It is so formulaic and it has been done before, let's just do it here," he said.

You begin by getting to know the homeless population using a vulnerability index. In the five to 10-minute survey there are questions about their health, interaction with police, drug and alcohol use and their current living arrangements.

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By better understanding the community you can identify who is the most vulnerable - basically, who are the most likely to die - and make an intervention with those who need it first.

"It is like an ER when everybody comes in and you fill out the clipboard and you are able to decide who needs treatment first. By doing that then no matter how small your resource is you know you are putting it in the right people first," Crow said.

Then the Gimme Shelter database is used to find a home for those most in need.

There is no figure for the number of homeless in New Zealand. There is little data on the population that has been counted. The ones who do get counted are those who can make it to one of the social services to seek help. The ones who don't, or can't and who find their way to the Mission are the ones who need help the most.

"It makes it difficult to forecast the work we are going to do in the future," said Corie Haddock, service manager at social issues organisation Lifewise who is working directly with Gimme Shelter. "We are responding to what it is in front of us rather than being able to specifically plan for the future. What it also means is we can't directly go to government . . . with really accurate figures."

And there is no statutory obligation for the Government to house the homeless. Changes to the welfare system last year made it more difficult to receive the benefit without a fixed address. And with a housing crisis in Auckland and Christchurch it is increasingly difficult to find homes.

It means solutions to the problem have historically started and finished with a bowl of soup or a bed for a night. And even then resources are short and fought over.

The council and Mission told Bevan that Charlie and his mates were well known and being checked on every day. The reality was very different.

The group scoffed when asked if someone came to see them, and said they were unwelcome at the Mission, where a strict hierarchy meant the older homeless have first rights to limited beds and food.

In an attempt to provide long-term help, what began as the Methodist Mission's soup kitchen, Lifewise, has evolved into an all inclusive service "providing the services and support needed for individuals and families to improve their future." From giving handouts to giving hand-ups.

"With a soup kitchen you walked in and you got a meal," said Haddock. "Here you turn up and you say you need some support and a social worker does an assessment.

"You might need emergency accommodation, you might need a shower and some clothes. You might also need a feed. It changes the dynamic, it changes the intention and changes the relationship."

While living on the street, alcoholism, diabetes, drug addiction, depression, and trying find a job are secondary to survival.

Partnered with Gimme Shelter, Lifewise wants to put those on the street into homes to help find a permanent solution to what Haddock says are the consequences that cause homelessness.

Lifewise currently houses five homeless people every month. They have two full-time staff dedicated to finding accommodation.

"What accommodation does is give them stability. By having stability it means you can work with them to address the underlying issues that caused homelessness in the first place," said Haddock.

Access to the detailed information Gimme Shelter is collecting allows Lifewise to have a clearer picture of the problem and to prioritise resources.

Crow's first intervention with homelessness was with Ronald, a man he would see every Sunday begging at the Grey Lynn farmers market. He would buy him food. His family would sit and listen to Ronald talk about his life.

"He was just trying to make his bigger family work. We helped him work through some stuff. He helped us work through some stuff," he said.

Crow has a broad social conscious. He founded Nice Blocks and Nice Cream, an artisan and fairtrade ice block and vegan icecream company, with business partner Tommy Holden. All their employees are paid a living wage, and they hired a young woman after spotting her advertising her desire to work with a roadside sign.

He realised that while issues like famine in Africa had become fashionable, popular causes, homelessness in New Zealand was being conveniently ignored.

"It should be an attractive, understandable, celebrated issue in our society that families chat about over the dining room table. It has sort of fallen by the wayside, it shouldn't have," Crow said.

He wants Gimme Shelter to engage wider New Zealand in taking responsibility for the vulnerable people seen in local neighbourhoods and communities.

Following the US model, its first outreach to find, meet, and get to know the homeless failed. Gimme Shelter knows there are 20 to 30 people sleeping rough in New Lynn, but despite starting at dawn the group of 20 volunteers found no-one.

Smaller homeless populations are highly transitory and often moved around by police but Gimme Shelter hopes to enlist Kiwis to help solve a problem that affects more of them than is largely believed.

That means making the survey a phone app and engaging with the broader public to talk to the person sleeping in the local bus stop, or the woman begging outside the local dairy, or the man seen every day at the local park.

Crowe wants Kiwis to collect the important data from the individual and supply it back to Gimme Shelter.

"The goal for me is that we get enough people aware of what we are trying to do, and try and simplify it, and try and make it easy enough to access and understand, so people don't feel shut out from trying to house the person down the road from them," Crow said.

He wants Gimme Shelter to raise public awareness to the point where people are recognised as soon as they hit the street, and can be helped efficiently and effectively by the community.

After an initially icy response from groups who have been working in the homeless sector for decades and who believed they knew best, they have come to realise Crow is not going away. With a fresh pair of eyes and a model he knows works, Crow refuses to put the issue down.

"I know that numbers work better than good intentions," he said.

Teamed with Bevan and Lifewise, Crow and Gimme Shelter are already raising the profile of the cause in circles that had previously ignored the issue. And they want to continue to prevent people from pretending the problem doesn't exist.

When Bevan first focused attention on the situation of Charlie and his friends, she was surprised when Haddock told her what an amazing difference she had made.

"All I have done, is get a few tables at [Ponsonby restaurant] SPQR talking about homelessness tonight. He said, ‘Ange I have been trying to do that for 10 years'." *Name has been changed

- Sunday Star Times

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