Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Motel rooms for homeless may be pre-purchased by Work and Income

Paula Bennett told the committee that Work and Income was considering whether some motel rooms could be pre-purchased. Photo / Dean Purcell
Paula Bennett told the committee that Work and Income was considering whether some motel rooms could be pre-purchased. Photo / Dean Purcell

Motel rooms could be pre-purchased as temporary accommodation for homeless, Paula Bennett says - as she refutes Labour's assertion that her advice to the Prime Minister made him look a "fool".

The Social Housing Minister fronted a Parliamentary committee today and outlined what was being done to deal with homelessness, an issue that has hit headlines recently after cases of people living in cars and garages.

She revealed a new plan to pre-purchase motel rooms for homeless people to live in for about a week until more permanent lodgings can be found. The hope is that such a move could bring the cost of a room down significantly.

Currently, Work and Income can place someone in need of accommodation in motels, but they normally have to repay the cost later.

From next month, a grant for one week's accommodation will be available to people who need emergency support.

In special circumstances that could be extended.

Ms Bennett told the committee that Work and Income was considering whether some motel rooms could be pre-purchased. She received a report on the measure yesterday.

"[That could] get us through, particularly this winter period, and it's something that we could do relatively quickly in the next two to three weeks."

In response to questioning from Labour's Carmel Sepuloni about how much money could be put aside for such pre-purchasing, Ms Bennett said 100 rooms could be easily filled within a week.

Ms Bennett said information on the total debt owed by people who were put in motels by Work and Income was not collated.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford went on the attack over recent comments by Prime Minister John Key relating to the "flying squad" teams, dispatched last week by the Government to help the homeless, and gauge the level of the problem.

Mr Key had told reporters that MSD officials and the Salvation Army knocked on car windows and talked to people living inside, but all eight people talked to refused support.

The Salvation Army subsequently issued a statement saying that was not true, that it had declined an offer by MSD officials to accompany them, and the Prime Minister's comments had jeopardised the charity's relationship with vulnerable people.

Ms Bennett said she took full responsibility for the "misunderstanding". She had told Mr Key that a mobile squad made up of MSD and NGOs, including the Salvation Army, had been visiting Auckland City Mission and areas of Auckland.

Ms Bennett told the committee that what had happened was that MSD had gone to Auckland City Mission, and the NGOs had gone to the parks.

"I wasn't sufficiently clear that they didn't go out together. And quite rightly for the way that I said it, it sounded like they had."

MSD had a team based at the ministry's headquarters waiting to take calls from the Salvation Army and other NGOs so they could help people if required, she said.

Mr Twyford asked if Ms Bennett had apologised to the Prime Minister "for making him look like a fool".

"I think at the end of the day there was a misunderstanding ... I think the key point is that there were people that needed assistance and we were actively going out there and trying to help them," Ms Bennett said.

# MORE THAN 1200 STATE HOMES VACANT

More than 1200 state homes are currently vacant.

About 486 empty because of methamphetamine contamination. Another 1 per cent of state housing -- around 730 properties -- are empty in the short-term, because of maintenance or turn-over of tenants.

The figures were provided today by officials accompanying Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett to a select committee briefing on recent Budget measures on building and housing.

As of April, Housing NZ had 580 properties confirmed as contaminated with meth, and seven properties were marked for demolition as they were unable to be cleaned up.

On the policy of offering financial incentive to those on the waiting list for state housing in Auckland to consider moving elsewhere, Ms Bennett said officials had received about 130 expressions of interest.

It was not clear yet where those people were interested in moving to, she said.

- NZ Herald

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