Homelessness in New Zealand has been highlighted as the worst in the OECD. The number of homeless people and beggars in Auckland’s CBD seems to be ballooning, and they are becoming more and more visible in the suburbs.
I put this to Auckland mayor Phil Goff, who told me the answer is not simply to get them out of sight, out of mind: “Provided you’re not being obnoxious and obstructing people, or abusing people, there is no law in the country that says thou shalt not put a hat on the pavement and ask for money.”
He has asked council staff to look into options to provide safe and suitable storage for belongings and bedding of rough sleepers to be stowed short-term to keep streets tidy during the day. But Goff says the solution to homelessness requires solving the problems that generate it. And it is an issue he’s heavily involved in and clearly passionate about.
“If the rate of home building is much lower than the growth and demand for homes, one, you’re going to force up costs both in rental and purchase, but the people who miss out when there’s a shortage of housing are always people at the bottom,” he says.
Auckland Council is now consenting over 15,000 properties a year — five times the level from eight years ago. “You also need to ramp up your social housing programme and the government’s doing that, though I think they need to do more.”
Goff says the third “prong” to solving homelessness lies in programmes such as Housing First — a collective of five organisations helping those who are homeless into appropriate housing. It then provides wraparound services, working on the principle that it is easier for people to address issues such as mental health and substance use once they are housed. Since 2017 the programme has housed over 1100 people.
A similar strategy was deployed in Helsinki, which made Finland the only country in the European Union to have a fall in homelessness.
In a similar vein, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last month announced a massive $300m homelessness action plan.
The Government says it will provide 1000 more transitional housing places by the end of the year, along with spending more than $100m on preventative measures under the banner of a new “Aotearoa New Zealand Homelessness Action Plan”.
This includes support services for those at risk of losing their rental in the form of budgeting advice, property maintenance and mental health and addiction support.
But when judging homelessness by surveying Queen St, Goff tells me it is important to distinguish between homelessness and begging: “they’re not synonymous”. He says whenever Auckland has a cruise ship in, there are inevitably more people on the street begging.
Tackling this aspect includes the “Street Guardians” programme led by Heart of the City. The city centre business association is working in partnership with the Auckland City Mission and with support from the Ministry of Social Development to provide opportunities to people who would otherwise be begging on the street to work on community projects. Projects range from fixing bikes, building planter boxes, planting trees and cleaning beaches. Heart of the City says the programme is popular, with most weeks oversubscribed.
There are those who say having homelessness and beggars is an enduring feature of an urban landscape and the price you pay for being a big city. Others baulk at the money being spent. But studies in Finland show that the savings in healthcare, social services and the justice system total as much as € 15,000 a year for every homeless person in properly supported housing.
We must aspire to make homelessness in Auckland rare, and brief when it happens.
It is a complex challenge, but all the evidence shows it is far more expensive to accept or ignore homelessness, than it is to solve it.
All the evidence shows it is far more expensive to accept or ignore homelessness, than it is to solve it.