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Addressing homelessness

VIRGINIA WINDER
Last updated 08:56 04/12/2012
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Stephanie McIntyre

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When there was a call by the Anglican Church to hold a Hikoi of Hope, social activist Stephanie McIntyre found herself at centre stage.

Stephanie is now the director of Downtown Community Ministry in Wellington, which has a primary focus on addressing and preventing inner-city homelessness. The agency works with some of Wellington's most vulnerable people who are living on the street or in the night shelter, and it offers practical support to help them put their lives back together and find a home.

McIntyre was formerly a social justice commissioner for the Anglican Church and played a central role in organising the 1998 Hikoi of Hope march on Parliament, which protested the rise in poverty in New Zealand.

Over the years, McIntyre has continued to be a public advocate for social justice issues and a champion for disadvantaged and marginalised groups. More recently, she has led the call for the establishment of a "wet" house in Wellington as an innovative solution to provide a stable home for people with long histories of alcohol dependence.

"The thing that drives and motivates me is restlessness and a hunger for positive social change," she says.

McIntyre is drawn to how religious faith can be "given flesh" by its actions. "I have always seen Jesus as a radical role model, who stood things on their head and announced a vision of a very different way of living and being. As a very idealistic young person I genuinely believed that we were called to a more community way of life, so I was very drawn to the notion that social issues should be addressed."

In the 1990s, McIntyre become involved with the Service and Food Workers Union, and she also became a workplace counsellor with the industrial chaplaincy service ITIM. In this role she worked with bus drivers, traffic officers and the police and was also a counsellor at parliament with the employees of politicians.

In 1996, she became a commissioner with the Anglican Social Justice Commission (a job she shared with the Rev Jim Greenaway, from Opotiki).

What she could not have anticipated was that the Anglican Church - sometimes described as "middle New Zealand at prayer" - would soon decide to make the most public stand on social issues that New Zealand had seen for a generation.

The decision to march on Parliament was taken by the General Synod of the Anglican Church, held in Auckland in 1998.

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The 1990s was a decade of political and economic change that saw some deep social consequences. Welfare benefits had been cut in 1991, Housing New Zealand tenants were forced into market-based rentals, and the Employment Contracts Act had been passed, which led to an increasing casualisation of the workforce.

"The fallout from this rampant change was just phenomenal, and poorer New Zealand families were really hurting," McIntyre says. "There was huge stress also on the church and community agencies that were trying to cope. When the Synod had its usual session on current social issues, it heard many lay people from their diocese saying, 'This is the pain and hurt that I am witnessing in my community', and sharing some very stark and moving stories.

"In the end, there was a call for a great march or hikoi to be held in the spring. Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe got in behind it, the motion was passed and the Hikoi of Hope was born. Within minutes they were coming back to myself and Jim Greenaway and asking us to make it happen."

McIntyre produced briefing papers for the five main planks that the Hikoi of Hope would focus on, showing why each of these issues was at a level of critical concern for New Zealanders.

The five planks were: Addressing poverty, real job creation, affordable housing, a health system we can trust and accessible education.

When it started, the Hikoi of Hope had teams marching on Parliament from Cape Reinga at the top of Northland, and also from Stewart Island at the bottom of the South Island. It is estimated that about 80,000 people joined the march at some time during the month-long journey.

After the Hikoi of Hope, and after a decade of activism on "macro" issues at a national level, McIntyre found herself increasingly interested in the changes she might achieve at a "micro" level of social services.

In the new millennium, McIntyre became the director of the Downtown Community Ministry (DCM).

The organisation was set up in 1969 by a group of Wellington city churches who wanted to support the "left-behind" people in their city - those people who have no money, no food and no roof over their heads.

Each year, DCM stages a 24-hour second-hand book fair at the TSB Bank Arena in Wellington. Around 80,000 books are on sale at this event, making it one of New Zealand's largest book fairs of its kind. More than 200 volunteers turn up to help out with the organising - including local police officers, staff from inner-city businesses and DCM service users.

DCM also has grown a significant individual donor base, as well as some support from charitable trusts.

"I really believe in philanthropy, and being a donor is a way that connects people in a concrete way to their community. I don't want a situation where we are fully dependent on government contracts because I want people to own us and own what we do," she says.

As the new director McIntyre adopted a Housing First policy, which means placing a person in housing as a first step of support, before addressing their other social and service needs. This is in contrast to other social service approaches that offer housing as a "prize" or reward for the demonstration of compliance to a system of care, like maintaining sobriety.

"Research shows that the mere act of placement in housing produces a level of stabilisation that allows the individual to address their other needs more effectively. We also asked homeless people what it was they wanted, and they consistently told us that they wanted to be housed. So that became our mission," she says.

DCM's commitment to the Housing First model saw around 75 people in the first couple of years move from rough sleeping on the streets to independent flatting, mainly within the social housing programmes of the Wellington City Council and Housing New Zealand.

The hardest group to find a roof over their heads are those people with long histories of alcohol dependence as well as homelessness.

McIntyre began to research the concept of a "wet" house accommodation, which is a highly effective but somewhat controversial form of therapeutic housing that allows people with long-term alcohol dependence to consume alcohol on the premises.

In 2007, she gained a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust grant, which enabled her to travel to the United States, Canada and Europe to visit examples of this form of accommodation, and to draw upon the expertise and experience of how they are run.

First and foremost, a "wet" house provides a home, but it's a home that is a stable living environment where residents are supported to develop plans for controlling and reducing their drinking.

Safety is ensured by providing 24-hour cover of awake staff at all times. Typically, there is a staffed reception area, which monitors the comings and goings of residents and manages and restricts the flow of visitors.

McIntyre found that the cost of these houses was fully funded by their various governments, including significant capital investments in high-quality purpose-built buildings.

"I was hugely impressed by the ethos and level of care in these places, and the respect that was shown to the residents. Many of these house projects had evaluations that testify to the success of this approach and showed that the quality of life of residents was significantly improved, and alcohol consumption rates had radically dropped."

Besides being a humane model of accommodation for this group of people, McIntyre points out that the "wet" house concept is probably the most cost-effective model as well.

The accumulative financial price tag of hospital admissions, police and court processing and time spent in jail, far outweighs the cost of setting up accommodation that suits the needs of people from this background.

Back in New Zealand, McIntyre helped to establish a new trust called Te Whare Oki Oki (the resting place) to champion a local "wet" house proposal. (edited) from How Communities Heal - stories of social innovation and social change by Vivian Hutchinson and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

- Taranaki Daily News

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