Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Govt may invest more in Housing First - Bennett

The housing crisis means more people than ever are living in cars and garages, an unofficial inquiry has found.
The housing crisis means more people than ever are living in cars and garages, an unofficial inquiry has found.

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett says many of the proposals made by a cross-party inquiry on homelessness are already underway.

But she will take further time to consider the inquiry's 20 recommendations, and any promising ideas could be adopted.

"I'll certainly have a thorough read through and if there's anything we can pick up then we'll be definitely running them out," she told reporters at Parliament this afternoon.

In particular, Bennett agreed with the inquiry's finding that the Housing First approach could be expanded in New Zealand.

Housing First, which originated in Canada, is based on the idea that people should be placed straight into permanent housing, rather than emergency shelters, before any other issues such as addiction or mental health are addressed.

The Government has already invested $3 million in the initiative, and Bennett said further investment was likely.

"We've now got the funding to run that out in west, central and south Auckland and we believe that it really is the way to those that have been long-term homeless."

Bennett said that at first glance, the Government was already partly or fully carrying out 17 out of 20 of the recommendations.

"From what I could see, most of [the report] made sense but as I say it's stuff I've already got in train."

Bennett said it was also possible that the accommodation supplement - which subsidises rent for lower income tenants - could be reviewed.

The inquiry said the rental subsidy had not kept up with rising rents.

The Government already spends $1.2 billion on the accommodation supplement, and any change would cost "hundreds of millions", Bennett said.

Prime Minister John Key said he was open to a change to the accommodation supplement if Bennett recommended it.

The inquiry was jointly held by Labour, Greens and the Maori Party after National declined to take part.

Maori Party leader Marama Fox, whose party has a confidence and supply agreement with National, said Finance Minister Bill English had assured her that he would "seriously consider" any new ideas from the inquiry which the Government had not already implemented.

Asked what would happen if he did not, Fox said: "We sit alongside the Government and we challenge them on these things.

"And if they don't, they'll find themselves wanting at the next election. It's as simple as that.

"Because New Zealanders will not stand for homelessness in this country."

She went on: "It is a critical election issue. It is a critical issue for our people. It is bigger than the election. It is bigger than the Government and our parties that are standing here."

The inquiry found that Maori were disproportionately represented among the 40,000 homeless people in New Zealand.

Labour leader Andrew Little said many of the recommendations were longer-term, such as building more affordable houses. But others could be implemented immediately, or in the next six months.

The short-term changes included resolving the growing disconnect between Housing New Zealand and Work and Income New Zealand, which had been identified in the inquiry.

As part of social housing reforms, the job of assessing people for housing was moved from Housing New Zealand to the Ministry for Social Development.

Te Puea Marae board member Hurimoana Dennis, who spoke at the launch of the homeless report at Parliament, said bureaucracy had been a major obstacle to rehousing people.

"The emergency social housing pathway, it works out to about six phone calls, five meetings, six letters and every acronym you could possibly think of."

WORSE THAN EVER

Labour, Greens and the Maori Party released the results of their inquiry this morning after holding public hearings around the country.

The parties chose to hold their own inquiry after National blocked attempts to have a select committee look into the issue.

After hearing from around 500 submitters, they concluded that the level of homelessness in New Zealand was "larger now than any other time in recent memory".

"The housing crisis is causing an extreme level of homelessness, particularly in Auckland, with families forced to live on the streets, in cars, and in garages."

New Zealand has had an underlying homeless problem for some time, but it had significantly increased as housing had become less affordable.

It was also affecting a broader range of the population.

"Homelessness is no longer dominated by the stereotypical rough sleeper with mental health issues and is now more often a working family with young children," the report said.

Maori, Pacific and migrant communities were most likely to be sleeping rough.

The cross-party inquiry said the steps taken so far by the Government were insufficient.

Its main recommendations were to increase the state housing stock; address systemic issues such as housing affordability, building costs, and property speculation; and to create a national strategy to end homelessness; and to make Housing First the primary response to severe homelessness.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the cost of solving homelessness was an estimated $60 million a year - a sevenfold increase on current spending.

The inquiry heard that each homeless person cost the Government $65,000 each in social services and justice sector costs.

Twyford said that meant the cost of not acting on homelessness was around $250 million a year.

MORE THAN HOUSING

Dennis told reporters that his marae in Mangere had found that housing people was "the easy part".

Homelessness was complicated by numerous other issues such as mental health problems, violence, and addiction.

Te Puea found itself at the heart of the homeless issue earlier this year after it offered to take in people who were living rough.

Out of the 130 that the marae had re-housed, six had "fallen down" because of domestic violence or drug abuse, Dennis said.

"Putting them in homes and not dealing with everything else that comes with it is going to be a problem."

- NZ Herald

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