Mark Thomas: Homeless plan not working

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Providing place like Civic Building - and banning begging - would help target services and clear footpaths.
A survey by Lifewise found too many homeless slept rough because they said it was their choice. Photo / File
A survey by Lifewise found too many homeless slept rough because they said it was their choice. Photo / File

Auckland is four years into a 10-year plan to end homelessness. This is not the first plan. In 2006, then mayor Dick Hubbard embarked upon one, mayor John Banks' council established another, the Homeless Action Plan 2008-2013. Yet despite all this planning, homelessness in Auckland is likely getting worse.

From my office at the bottom of Queen St I see more and more people begging and sleeping rough. The last survey at the end of 2014 said 147 people were sleeping on our streets. Another survey is planned and anecdotal evidence is that this number has increased.

The central police I speak to agree the problem is getting worse. As I travel around the region I know this is not confined to the CBD.

I agree we are not making fast enough progress. The well-meaning multi-year plan approach isn't working. The current Homeless Plan has 95 milestones or actions, including to end homelessness for fewer than 200 people, by 2022.

I disagree with the view held by some that it's the job of the mayor and the Auckland Council to solve homelessness. But it is our job to make sure our streets are used in the right way.

My answer to the challenge, if elected mayor in October, would be to provide a temporary location for the homeless and to accompany this with a ban on begging.

A location would help government and other agencies better access the homeless and provide the medical support, financial assistance, skills training and permanent accommodation needed.

I will use vacant or underused council or (preferably) government space, such as the Civic Building in Aotea Square which has been largely unused for two years, which can be used overnight for people who are homeless. Manchester in the UK is following a similar approach.

I expect it would be accessible from 8pm-7am and I would direct council to use existing relationships with Maori wardens and other key partners such as Lifewise and the Auckland City Mission to assist. I don't want my approach to cost ratepayers any more and I will work with businesses to meet any additional costs.

Major corporates have been involved in the development of the previous homeless plans. Lifewise lists major banks, a casino and significant funding agencies as supporters and the City Mission has similar corporate partners.

The insightful survey Lifewise undertook interviewing rough sleepers in 2015 showed that just providing housing or shelter is not enough. It concluded that "once housed, creating a home is not straightforward". That's because the original family, personal or medical issues play a much bigger role. So any solution needs to make sure agencies are providing the "wrap-around" support to deliver durable solutions. Putting people in one location makes this much more likely.

But we have to make it compelling for the homeless to pick up this option because the Lifewise survey also found too many homeless slept rough because they said it was their choice.

In a humane society, I don't think this is a choice that should be available. So I will accompany the temporary accommodation with a ban on begging.

It has to work both ways. If as mayor I'm going to provide more support, it's fair that those who need it meet the obligation the rest of us meet and respect the use of our streets. A ban on begging is an important part of my approach and other cities around the world are looking at this, including Fremantle in Australia.

I recently received an invitation from the Lifewise chief executive to join the annual Lifewise Big Sleepout where people sleep on the streets of Auckland for a night to fundraise and raise awareness. I readily accepted. There are some great people involved helping the homeless but we have to do more. I want to participate in the Sleepout, support Lifewise and further discuss my approach.

I recently spoke about my idea with someone who begs on the streets of Auckland and who has been homeless for four years. He took little convincing.

Enough with the multi-year plans. Let's take action on homelessness which has a better chance of fixing the problem and which returns our pavements to pedestrians.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Mark Thomas is an Auckland mayoral candidate and current elected member of the Orakei Local Board. This piece is in response to an open letter to mayoral candidates from Michelle Kidd of the Te Rangimarie Trust.

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