Sleeping rough is street legal

SLEEPING ROUGH: New Zealand is behind other countries when it comes to funding, thinking and government action on homelessness.
SLEEPING ROUGH: New Zealand is behind other countries when it comes to funding, thinking and government action on homelessness.

"I'm sick of the fluffy bullshit and the niceness," sighs Corie Haddock, who runs an innovative, well-regarded Auckland homelessness charity, Lifewise, a $1 million-turnover operation that receives "not a single cent" from government. "It's time to be controversial."

Haddock is sick of the reality that our growing homelessness problem – Labour's housing spokeswoman Annette King calls it a "crisis" – receives no media attention or public sympathy. One surprised friend, on hearing of this story, exclaimed: "But there aren't any homeless people in New Zealand." Haddock, who deals with Auckland's growing numbers of rough sleepers every day, knows different.

It's a bleak picture that doesn't reflect well on our society. In funding, thinking and government action on homelessness, New Zealand is very clearly way behind Australia, Britain and the US, where even that great progressive thinker, George Bush, had more to say on the subject than our government. As a nation, we are actually relying on a handful of church-based groups to help our most disadvantaged. These frontline workers report they are "bursting at the seams", battling for funding, trying to help more people, finding government increasingly distant and parsimonious.

They know from experience that homelessness is growing, but can't even say by how much; they don't have the money or time to calculate it themselves, and there's no government interest in conducting their own study. Requests for a ministerial inquiry into homelessness have been refused, and a near 30-year campaign for a legal duty to be placed upon government to house the homeless – such a law was enacted in Britain back in 1977 – has been fruitless.

"We are going backwards," admits David Zussman, who runs South Auckland's Monte Cecilia Housing Trust, which accommodates homeless families. "Our sector is struggling. We stand alongside these vulnerable families, who are struggling and doing it tough. Well, I think we are as well now."

And yet the housing minister, Phil Heatley, is surprisingly chipper, telling me we don't know how lucky we are. "We don't have the challenges that other countries do, such as Britain and the United States and others," he insists brightly. "However, we're very conscious that we don't want to have them either ... we need to keep pace with need."

Looking out at a packed waiting room at Wellington's Downtown Community Ministry, which offers services such as a foodbank and help finding permanent accommodation, director Stephanie McIntyre is amazed. "How does he know that, and what on earth is he basing that on?" she asks.

In Britain, that legal duty means local councils must find homeless people somewhere to live; not only that, but try to prevent them becoming homeless in the first place. We're discussing that when Zussman breaks off to find me a "present".

Dug from a file cabinet, it's a mock game of snakes-and-ladders, a parody of the contortions required to secure housing when homeless ("refuse derelict house with no hot water. Social worker says he paid $95,000 for similar in Ponsonby") and bears a slogan demanding "a statutory obligation to house the homeless". But the real irony is the poster dates to the early 1980s, and yet New Zealand is still no closer to that goal. "The safety net approach doesn't exist here," says Zussman. "And there doesn't seem to be any desire, appetite or even intention from the government."

Instead, a patchwork of voluntary bodies, raising funds from donations, trusts and philanthropists, fill the gap. Heatley says many of these organisations are "better placed" to holistically support the homeless than his department, Housing New Zealand, and suggests these faith-based groups "would consider it their core business, as being a Christian community" to offer that support.

Actually, it leaves Zussman depressed. "It's a vicious cycle," he says, "people say you are doing the work of the government, stop doing it, but that resolve of working for your fellow man doesn't let you do it, so we work bloody hard to let the government off the hook. It's a complete dilemma. But you sense that if you said 'here's the keys, we can't do it any more' ..." They would lock the doors and leave? "Yes."

Haddock is blunt. "Because there is no money, the reality is that no sane organisation would do this kind of work."

Everyone I spoke to in the sector resented the way government assumed they would step in. At the "grossly underfunded" Wellington Night Shelter, where the affable, unflappable Mike Leon has worked for the last 17 years, with a total of 1.6 staff to run an almost always-full 21-bed hostel and 20-bed night shelter, a fifth of the new faces he sees are "referred" by government departments. It's not a referral in the true sense: they turn up without warning or any case files. Another night shelter – there are nine nationwide – has even had clients arrive still clad in hospital gowns.

At Emergency Housing Whangarei, whose two houses for families and single men always run at least 90 per cent full, manager Chrissy McLoughlin says: "The government is shirking responsibility. They are washing their hands and ... expecting agencies to look after the homeless without funding or support. Things are getting worse, definitely." They want to expand, but can't. How do they fundraise? "Not through government funding, that's for sure."

But it's been hard to get the message across.

The umbrella body New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness began calling for a the national inquiry in 2008. That was echoed by the Labour Party, but not, unfortunately, until November 2009, by which time they were in opposition. Heatley says Labour "wants a discussion on it, but had a decade to discuss it and we are getting on with it [redeveloping housing stock]".

Instead, the government offered a ministerial inquiry into boarding houses – the subject of several recent newspaper investigations into awfully squalid conditions – which last year published an interim report.

But the dissolution of parliament for the election limited it to broad, airy recommendations about considering new minimum standards and better compliance. It also included Labour's minority view restating their desire for a full inquiry into homelessness. Heatley says a fuller report is still expected.

But the coalition can claim some modest successes. The most recent was attracting Mana, Green, Labour and National parliamentary candidates to their AGM in Hamilton last year. They were enthused that the first three all included homelessness policies in their manifestos, although less amused that National didn't even mention the word in theirs.

More importantly, in 2009, they secured an official definition of homelessness from Statistics New Zealand, reading: "Homelessness is defined as living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing."

What's important about that is it recognises homelessness isn't just street sleeping. As Lifewise worker Steve McLuckie says, that's the tip of the iceberg and the public perception. It's also people in night shelters, hostels and boarding houses; about the "hidden homeless": the permanent couch-surfers, the families sleeping in a relative's garage, crammed in a single room or sleeping in a car parked outside a friend's place. The coalition suspects that because we have a less visible street-sleeping issue than Sydney or London, it allows the issue to be ignored, when their experiences suggest our big problem is the hidden homeless.

For example, while I interview Zussman, a family with five children, the mother pregnant with a sixth and the father working on minimum wage, on the Pacific Island quota so ineligible for a Housing New Zealand home, are arriving to move into one of the 12, always-occupied units at Monte Cecilia's hostel. They had been paying $220 a week to rent a one-room portacabin at a boarding house.

The next step would be a chance to measure numbers, tricky because of the transience of homeless people and an understandable suspicion of people asking questions. "Frontline agencies are busier now, there are more people coming on the streets, the government and welfare state are providing less, rents are going up and housing is more scarce and the consequence is more and more homelessness. But can we measure this? No, because we are so busy doing the job," says Haddock. "And," says McLuckie, "there isn't a will on behalf of those in authority to find out."

Phil Heatley says this government is making "hard decisions" by selling off more expensive state houses, sub-dividing sections and refocusing on areas of acute shortage, such as south and east Auckland and upgrading 14,000 homes after, he says, finding the housing stock in "dreadful" condition. They plan 1400 new state houses in Auckland over the next five years and he says HNZ find homes for highest-need applicants within 10 to 15 days.

But Labour's King says that knowing 2011 produced a record low for house-building, it's clear the problem of finding enough homes for everyone will worsen, specifically in Auckland. "We've got a growing problem, to the extent that now we say we have got a crisis," she says.

Agencies chasing that decreasing stock for their clients say major changes in how Housing New Zealand operates has made the task even tougher.

A means-test, which Heatley laudably says is to ensure "nobody holding down a lucrative job" lives in state housing, is turning away prospective tenants on the basis of often-modest incomes and ignoring, says Zussman, that there simply aren't any such cheap rentals available in overcrowded suburbs such as South Auckland's Mangere. "They are not interested in [availability], whether they have got debts or need support," says Zussman. "[The result] is frontline people like us are seeing more people. Housing New Zealand is saying it is no longer a social service provider. They are being honest about it. It's a bit depressing, really." King says HNZ are backing "out of responsibilities other than being a landlord as fast as they can, on the instructions of their minister".

HNZ has also removed the so-called "state-house-for-life" provision in favour of reviewable tenancies, which McLoughlin argues merely perpetuates precarious housing situations for the vulnerable and has caused the rise of "revolving" tenants, who fail to break the homeless cycle.

Unbidden, Heatley raises the point that many homeless people have a complex set of issues, which can include alcohol, drug or legal problems – making them an inter-departmental concern. Yes, says Haddock, he calls that the "government shuffle: they say `this is not our issue, talk to housing', they say `this is not our issue, talk to health', they say `this is not our issue, talk to MSD'."

The shuffle may simply get worse. In a remarkable policy shift made without consultation, from April 10, clients won't be able to visit Housing New Zealand offices, but instead must ring an 0800 number to schedule an appointment. All services said this new system was already proving time-consuming and an irritation; one of Zussman's staff wasted half an hour with a client with second-language English, trying to secure a translator to report a routine maintenance issue.

The coalition wants a single agency created to take government responsibility for homelessness and help co-ordinate the fragmented voluntary sector. Because actually, it's everyone's issue, as the case of "Million Dollar Murray" illustrates. In a 2006 story for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote of Murray Barr, a homeless man in Reno, Nevada, whom local police had calculated had cost the government $1m in medical bills alone over the past decade, and concluded it would be cheaper to solve, not manage, homelessness.

One of Gladwell's interviewees was Philip Mangano, executive director of the US Inter-agency Council on Homelessness. Mangano visited New Zealand in 2009, met government, and as McLuckie puts it, "spoke their language [money]", but as far as the Lifewise boys can tell, did not catalyse any change.

A local example was soon found who, it was suggested, cost the system $200,000 a year, and, says Mike Leon, was actually living at the night shelter the whole time. "It was the classic case of everyone saying `it's not our problem'," Leon says. "Spending a few dollars at the start would have saved a lot downstream. But people don't seem to think like that." A recent example was the late "Blanket Man", Ben Hana, who totted up police, ambulance, court, A and E, mental health and other support costs to merely achieve what Leon calls "a slow, subconscious suicide".

One project in Denver housing single homeless was two-thirds cheaper than the cost of keeping them on the streets; another in Seattle slashed the figure by three-quarters. There aren't similar New Zealand examples because they simply don't exist, but it's hard to see why such economics wouldn't apply here.

Not only are we behind the Americans and English, we are, says Haddock, also "light years" behind Australia, where one of Kevin Rudd's first declarations as prime minister was to end homelessness and the government pours in many millions. "Every other country is not only acknowledging there is an issue, but have plans in place to deal with it," says Haddock. "We are barely acknowledging there is an issue."

It's easy for most to ignore homelessness when they can tell themselves people choose to sleep on the streets. While many do have drug, alcohol or mental health problems, others have simply lost jobs and slipped into debt or, it can be argued, been failed by the system. McIntyre points out one man arriving at the Downtown Community Ministry who was first arrested by police at 12 for theft: stealing food to feed his five younger siblings because his father was mentally ill and his mother alcoholic.

Leon says he's sensed a hardening of public attitudes, with more subscribing to the notion of "choice versus chance" – that the homeless chose their fate. "Homeless people do exist, no matter how often people deny it, and say it's just a couple of drunk bums on the street," he says. "It's big, and it's getting bigger. Things will eventually burst at the seams." Outside, in the driving rain, they are already waiting patiently for the doors to open.

Sunday Star Times