Homeless problem demands attention

HOMELESSNESS: New Zealand's response to homelessness lags behind other developed countries, critics say.
HOMELESSNESS: New Zealand's response to homelessness lags behind other developed countries, critics say.

Leading homeless advocates have angrily challenged the Government to provide leadership and take responsibility for homelessness in New Zealand.

Lifewise general manager John McCarthy and Dr Cathy Casey, chair of Auckland Council's social and community development forum, are scathing in their assessment of the treatment of the most vulnerable.

They say New Zealand's response to homelessness lags behind other developed countries: there are no official numbers, there is no legislation, there is no national strategy and there is no funding.

"It's homelessness in all its guises. It is people living in garages, in cars, having 20 family members living in one room - homelessness is a New Zealand problem so the Government must be involved in it," Casey told the Sunday Star-Times. "They can start by having a strategy, having a plan or having some legislation that says people have the right to a warm, secure, safe home."

McCarthy provides critical services to vulnerable and at-risk people at Lifewise, a not-for-profit organisation. He said the rate of homelessness is increasing and the fact the Government has not tried to even define the number of homeless people is indicative of a lack of concern.

"I guess from the Government's point of view once you start counting and start recognising a problem then there's an expectation that you might do something about it," McCarthy said. "If you go to Housing [New Zealand] you get pushed to health, if you go to health you get pushed to justice, if you go to justice you get pushed to MSD [Ministry of Social Development], and if you go to MSD you get pushed back to housing or variations of that theme."

Casey said the Government was not taking responsibility for homelessness as a national issue. "We are taking responsibility for it as a regional issue in our area and we have allocated $50,000 a year for the next 10 years so we are playing our part. They have to be our partner and play their part."

Housing Minister Phil Heatley said it was "absurd" to claim the Government was not committed to homelessness.

He said a three-year investment of more than $104 million towards non-government housing providers was proof it was taking homelessness seriously.

"Our commitment is huge. We are upgrading our stock social housing, we are upgrading our community housing and we're looking at accommodation supplement and income-related rents," Heatley said.

"We want to get on and get building now rather than running round in circles having mindless and unproductive debates."

McCarthy said one of the major stumbling blocks in New Zealand was that authorities manage the problem by providing shelters and soup kitchens rather than trying to solve it.

He believes that providing opportunities for independent living and integration into the community was a vital way of reducing homelessness.

In Alberta, Canada, more than $4 billion has been provided to community-based organisations with the objective of eradicating homelessness by 2019. A major cornerstone of the plan is medical care, psychiatric support, addiction counselling and life skills training.

Canadian studies show it can cost upwards of $120,000 per year in health, emergency and justice system services to support a chronically homeless person. It costs less than $43,000 per year to provide permanent housing.

McCarthy believes an investment in housing our most vulnerable is vital.

"They've worked out in Calgary and plenty of other cities around the world that taking the housing first approach is cheaper," said McCarthy. "You can house people straight from the street and support them. There's no transitional accommodation, there's no halfway house - that's the old way of thinking."

Sunday Star Times