Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Court for homeless under financial threat

Peter is writing a book about his life after escaping a cycle of vagrancy and petty crime. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Peter is writing a book about his life after escaping a cycle of vagrancy and petty crime. Photo / Sarah Ivey

A special court that has cut the arrest rate of homeless people by two-thirds faces an uncertain future after its two-year pilot funding ends in December.

The New Beginnings Court, which has convened monthly at the Auckland District Court since October 2010, aims to end the "revolving door" of homeless people appearing on repeated minor charges related to vagrancy and drunkenness.

Eight agencies have each paid $10,000 a year on a pilot basis towards the cost of a court co-ordinator-cum-social worker, Jo Ryan, who develops plans with the homeless to manage their addictions, mental health or other problems, and to get jobs or benefits and secure housing.

The agencies all have staff at the court hearings so that they can act immediately on anything agreed in the plans, and report to Judge Tony Fitzgerald on progress until the judge decides that a person is ready to "graduate" from the scheme.

An evaluation of 21 of the first 45 homeless people to go through the scheme, presented to an Auckland Council committee this week, found that they were arrested a total of 162 times in the six months before they entered the new court, only 55 times during the average of six months that they were in the court system, and 55 times in the first six months after they "graduated".

But with only two months to go until the pilot funding runs out, only Auckland Council has committed itself to keep paying $10,000 a year and the council's community safety forum head, George Wood, said he was worried that central Government had made no decision on the court's future.

"Now that we seem to have got on to something that is working, we don't want to lose the momentum."

He has asked Mayor Len Brown to raise the issue with Social Development Minister Paula Bennett at a meeting of the Auckland Social Policy Forum tomorrow.

Lifewise community services manager John McCarthy said the evaluation showed that the new court more than paid for itself in reduced nights in jail.

The 21 people in the evaluation spent a total of 457 nights in jail in the six months before entering the court, equivalent to 914 nights a year.

They spent only 101 nights in jail in the time they were in the court process, and 184 nights in the six months after graduating. That was a total of 285 nights in a year.

The reduction of 629 nights, at an average cost quoted by the Corrections Department of $250 a night, saved $157,250 - almost twice the $80,000 cost of the co-ordinator.

"From a cost perspective it's a no-brainer," Mr McCarthy said.

The co-ordinator has been employed by police as fund-holder for the eight funding agencies. Auckland Central area commander Andrew Coster said police expected to continue contributing $10,000 a year, but the other agencies were still "considering their positions".

Fresh start after life that went off rails

Auckland's New Beginnings Court has quite literally meant a new beginning for one 42-year-old man.

"I was on the streets for 28 years," said "Peter".

"This court has totally, totally changed my life, it's like a complete 360."

Peter was adopted by a Northland couple when he was 2. Both his birth parents had died and Peter spent most of his first two years in hospital with breathing problems.

When he was 15, he wrote a $100 cheque using his adoptive father's chequebook and "got kicked out of home". He has seen his parents only a few times since. "They didn't want anything to do with me."

He got arrested for hitchhiking on the motorway and was placed in the Owairaka boys' home.

"It snowballed from there," he said. "I never got into drugs or alcohol but I got picked up for various things."

A duty solicitor referred him to the new court. Court co-ordinator Jo Ryan helped him to develop goals and achieve them. She got him on a benefit and into the Salvation Army's Epsom Lodge and, after a three-month wait, into a Housing NZ flat.

"Jo's pretty cool. She's quite understanding, she's quite down to earth," he said.
Judge Tony Fitzgerald was "pretty cool" too.

"When you go into the court they actually say a karakia, a prayer, and the judge says, 'How are you, blah, blah, and asks you what you have been doing," he said.

Peter has started writing a book about his life.

- NZ Herald

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