Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

'Nothing new' in homeless inquiry - Govt

Getting rough sleepers off the street could have a net economic benefit in NZ, an Opposition-led inquiry into homelessness has heard. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Getting rough sleepers off the street could have a net economic benefit in NZ, an Opposition-led inquiry into homelessness has heard. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The Government says it will consider the findings of an unofficial inquiry into homelessness by Opposition MPs but it does not expect it to uncover anything new.

The Labour-Green-Maori Party inquiry wrapped up public hearings in Wellington today, and a committee will produce a report and recommendations for the Government.

Prime Minister John Key reiterated today that the inquiry was not needed because the Government was already dealing with the issue.

"If something unique comes out of the inquiry ... then we'll take that on board, but I don't think we've seen anything yet that we're now aware of," he said.

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett said she had seen "nothing new" in the submissions to the inquiry.

"Ultimately what we're saying is we've got a demand and supply problem, which we've been tackling for the last two years," she said.

While she would read the final report, she did not expect any recommendations "above what we are either currently doing, or have on track to be doing in the very near future".

One of the common themes in the submissions to the inquiry was that homelessness in New Zealand was now worse than ever before.

Asked whether she agreed, Bennett said: "Certainly I can accept that there are more at that chronic homeless end.

"And also those in lower income and benefits are certainly feeling the effects.

"Yes, it would have been some of the worst that I have seen."

The Government was addressing the problem through increased housing supply, grants for emergency accommodation, and a recent $3 million investment in the Housing First model, she said.

Opposition parties called for the inquiry after reports of a growing number of people living in cars, garages and overcrowded houses in Auckland.

National blocked attempts to hold a select committee inquiry, prompting Labour, Greens and the Maori Party to hold their own.

The 2013 census showed that around 41,000 New Zealanders were homeless, up from 33,000 in 2006.

Earlier today, He Kainga Oranga deputy programme director Nevil Pierse told the inquiry that there was a moral case to end rough sleeping. But there was also a strong economic case, he said.

His organisation's "best estimate" was that it cost the Government $65,000 "to keep somebody homeless". These costs were mostly incurred in mental health services and the police costs of addressing both offending by and against homeless people.

Pierse said other countries which had invested in the Housing First approach had found a net economic gain in getting people off the streets.

"In Canada ... they were able to show that there were actual benefits. Ninety-six per cent of the money for rough sleepers they were actually getting back." This figure did not take into account the benefits of a potential increase in tax take and higher employment.

If fully funded in New Zealand, Housing First could "end homelessness for free", Pierse said.

Bennett confirmed in July that $3 million would be invested in the Housing First model, which is based on the idea that people should be placed in housing before any other issues such as addiction or mental health are addressed.

Pierse welcomed the commitment, but said that level of investment was equivalent to around $750 for each homeless person in New Zealand per year. In Canada, where Housing First originated, $110m was invested in the programme a year - around $15,000 per person.

The committee also heard from people who had lived on the streets or in cars.

At times going to WINZ I've found they can be really horrible. I've had case managers who have treated me as less than human.
Sarah, mother of five

Sarah, a solo mother of five children from Lower Hutt - who asked that her full name not be published for safety reasons - said her family had lived in a car, in a single bedroom in a rental property, and in substandard housing that made her children sick. One of her children had nearly died after getting pneumonia, she said.

She said that she married while young and had spent years trying to escape her abusive partner. A long legal fight to secure a protection order against him had left her in debt.

She had struggled to get help from Government agencies, though she was now on the wait-list for a state house after a long fight with Housing New Zealand.

"At times going to WINZ I've found they can be really horrible," she said. "I've had case managers who have treated me as less than human."

Sarah said the private rental market was unreliable for homeless or vulnerable people.

In one instance, a landlord had kicked her out and had refused to return the bond, alleging property damage. When she attempted to lay a complaint with the Tenancy Tribunal, she was told this was not possible because the bond had never been lodged.

"We have really just been at the mercy of other people a lot," she said.

UNICEF's Prudence Stone said central and local government agencies, courts, and the tenancy tribunal had all failed to help Sarah.

Non-government organisations had to fill the gap, she said, but were not funded enough to cover all rough sleepers.

"When our agencies fail, people like Sarah are left fending for themselves in the open marketplace," she said.

- NZ Herald

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