Editorial: The homeless among us

Last updated 05:00 27/01/2014

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OPINION: Untidy business, homelessness, and not only at personal level. The statistics are scruffy, it's politically whiffy and many a virtuously intended initiative has been met with behaviourally erratic responses.

All of which can invite the regretful, if spuriously comfortable, conclusion that the forces of personal choice, unwellness and bloody-mindedness can mean that, with the best will in the world there's just no helping some people.

You can do only so much. No argument here.

Are we at least doing as much as we can?

In Southland, probably not.

The statistics on homelessness have been hazy, partly because these people have been inexplicably negligent about staying still, forming orderly queues, filling out their forms and keeping authorities updated about any change in circumstance.

And we've lacked information on the numbers that mightn't be sleeping rooflessly, exactly, but are "severely housing deprived". Only recently has a focus been starting to form on that.

From an Otago University study, the picture forms that Southland has 84 homeless people and nearly 250 more who are severely deprived of what we would surely, each of us, regard as living accommodation worthy of the title.

The extent to which this might reflect a downturn in community fortunes is not so clear, though the news from groups that would seem to have status here, including soup kitchens, is that the need is increasing.

Granted, some hardasses out there might murmur that "need" and "demand" aren't necessarily the same thing. They can be thanked for their contributions to the debate and invited to run along. Because even if we take these latest figures as a snapshot, it's enough to warrant some practical community assessment.

The Invercargill City Council will tomorrow hear from the newly formed Breathing Space Trust, spearheaded by Salvation Arm Captain Perry Bray. It aims to start a night shelter for those in need.

Hardly an innovation, is it? The Salvation Army's shelter for men closed in October 2013 after an independent earthquake report declared its 107-year-old Leven St building a serious earthquake risk.

Since then, whether deliberately or not, Invercargill has been conducting something of an experiment to see whether a homeless shelter is an optional extra. The Breathing Space Trust, which includes not only the Salvation Army but the police, Department of Corrections and community leaders, has reached the conclusion that it isn't.

It's true that the lack of a shelter hasn't meant things have been entirely Dickensian. Government agencies, for one thing, haven't suddenly disappeared. Trouble is, people with resistance to dealing with them hasn't disappeared either.

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Most likely some people in need of the shelter that the trust has in mind will not want a bar of it. And that others who do show up there will be problematically behaved. We're talking about individuals here; not some generic group that will react like reef fish.

Mayor Tim Shadbolt acknowledges trepidation. For some, he says, sleeping rough is a lifestyle decision. Shelters can worsen a problem, he reasons, so the idea of a new shelter should be examined rather than uncritically accepted as a good idea.

Seems reasonable, provided we're ready to acknowledge, and put aside, any prejudices about homelessness that we might be carrying with us.

- The Southland Times

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