Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Tackling homelessness head on

As most New Zealanders head home from summer holidays, some have no homes to go to — but that is changing in Hamilton, which aims to end homelessness this year. Simon Collins reports.
Busker Sam Hogg has a new home. Photo / Doug Sherring
Busker Sam Hogg has a new home. Photo / Doug Sherring

Sam Hogg watched other people going into the People's Project office before he decided to open the door himself.

Now 54, he had lived on and off the streets since he was 7, travelling the country with a tent and guitar on his back.

He had no idea what the People's Project was all about when it opened in September 2014 on the corner of Hamilton's Victoria St and Garden Place, right next to where homeless people congregated and near one of Mr Hogg's regular busking spots.

"I watched a lot of people coming in and out," he says.

"I thought I'd come in and find out what it's all about ... I came and asked if they would be able to help me."

They did. After wandering for almost half a century, Mr Hogg's life changed almost instantly.

"It took a week to get a beautiful place," he says.

His new flat was close by in Ulster St. Although he has lived with friends and relatives before, it was the first time he had ever had the keys to his own home.

The project

Mr Hogg is one of 137 people who have been helped to find a home so far by the People's Project, which set the bold goal when it started of ending homelessness in Hamilton by the end of 2016.

Rather than supporting people to stay on the streets by offering meals or temporary shelters, the project takes a "housing first" approach: first find a house, then wrap support around the tenant to deal with any other issues such as mental health or addictions, debts and unemployment.

"The uniqueness is the housing-first approach," says NZ Coalition to End Homelessness co-chair Corie Haddock.

When the project started, police provided details of 80 individuals who were sleeping rough. Project lead Julie Nelson says all but two of those people have now been housed.

Mr Hogg, who still busks in the central city, confirms that there are only "two or three streeties on the street at the moment".

"The rest have all got houses," he says.


Street sleepers are just the tip of an iceberg of largely hidden homelessness. Using 2006 census data, Otago University has calculated that 34,000 New Zealanders, or one in every 120 people, were lacking habitable, private and secure housing, including people living in motor camps, "uninhabitable" sheds or "couch-surfing" in people's lounges.

In Hamilton, the problem suddenly got to the top of the public agenda with growing numbers of young people using synthetic cannabis in the months before the substances were banned in May 2014.

Mayor Julie Hardaker, who chairs the People's Project, says the two "legal high" shops in the central city caused a huge spike in complaints about behaviour.

"The legal highs got dealt with by the Government, so that made a big impact immediately," she says. "But we were developing a raft of plans, and how we approached homelessness was part of that."

Ms Hardaker and Ms Nelson, a joint chief executive of Hamilton-based social service provider Wise Group, "were getting together and talking about this issue".

Ms Hardaker roped in the regional heads of other key agencies to form a governance group.

They agreed on the goal of ending homelessness by 2016 and called it the "People's Project".

The council agreed to pay the rent for the Garden Place office. Wise Group contributed Ms Nelson and four other fulltime staff, funded "from our existing balance sheet". Waikato District Health Board contributed an addiction clinician and a mental health social worker.

Trust Waikato gave $70,000. Other trusts and law firms such as Whitfield Braun also gave money, and so did members of the public.

Homeless people themselves were wary at first.

"At first we didn't have anyone come in to see us," she says. "Then people plucked up the courage to come in. Then once we housed someone, that was it!"

Key elements

Four elements make the project unusual: its single-minded focus on housing first; its reliance mainly on private rentals; strong inter-agency collaboration; and agreement on shutting off the "feeders" into homelessness from mental health units, drug and alcohol rehab, state care and prisons.

Housing first"We are not a City Mission," Ms Nelson declares. Homeless visitors are offered a cup of tea, but there is no soup kitchen. If no social worker is available, they are asked to make an appointment to see one later.

"They are here because they want to be housed," she says.

Team lead Kerry Hawkes says staff start with the "financial stuff", taking people to Work and Income to make sure they are getting all their entitlements and then working out how much rent they can afford.

Private rentals

The next priority is finding a house quickly. Of the first 132 people housed, 110 (83 per cent) went into private rentals. Only 14 got state houses, one got a council pensioner flat and seven got into other social housing with Te Runanga o Kirikiriroa or Wise Group's Keys Social Housing.

Private landlords "know that we're connected so they can give us a call if anything occurs," Ms Nelson says.

Strong collaboration

Collaboration is a common feature of strategies for the homeless. But Hamilton's project is unusual in being chaired by the mayor and in asking all new clients to consent to the project accessing information about them from all the other agencies.

Corrections Department regional operations manager Heather Mackie says the project rings her directly about clients.

Once people are housed, the project wraps services around them for as long as they are needed.

Closing 'feeders'

All agencies involved in the project have adopted the goal that "no one exits a care facility to the streets of Hamilton".

Health board mental health and addictions director Vicki Aitken says the board gave its key staff extra training on housing issues after the project started to make sure no one was discharged from hospital to no fixed abode.

Child, Youth and Family Waikato operations manager Cath Green says some young people leaving state care at age 17 have been unable to get jobs or housing and ended up on the streets.

Ms Mackie says Corrections now has contracts with social agencies to work with prisoners before and after leaving jail to help them find somewhere to live.

Getting results

Nancy Kohunui and Janet Kohunui at home in Hamilton after receiving help from The Peoples Project. Photo / Doug Sherring
Nancy Kohunui and Janet Kohunui at home in Hamilton after receiving help from The Peoples Project. Photo / Doug Sherring

The project says 122 of the 132 people housed by December 1 are still in secure housing. Of the other 10, six are staying with friends or family, three are in jail and one is in the night shelter.

The project has expanded beyond the initial target group of rough sleepers. Retired caregiver Janet Kohunui, 65, was referred to it when she and her disabled sister Nancy, 76, had to find a new home suddenly because other people were coming to stay with the relative they were living with.

Mr Hogg had to leave his first flat in Ulster St when it was sold in November. But, despite a traumatic life which included electric shock treatments in Lake Alice Hospital, he found a new place in Claudelands.

He plans to get a flatmate in to help pay the rent of $220 a week and has found casual work as a forklift driver.

The future

The project has engaged two academics to evaluate its model and Ms Nelson hopes the Government will take over funding it after this year.

She hopes that the project will become part of a new system of "wraparound" support for the country's 10,000 neediest people.

Who's been housed

• 53% single men
• 36% single women
• 11% families

Where they went

• 110 private rentals
• 14 Housing NZ
• 1 council flat
• 7 other social providers

- NZ Herald

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