Efforts to house the homeless a shifting problem

By Simon Collins

An Auckland City Council-sponsored effort to find homes for the homeless appears to be succeeding - although many have only moved into temporary accommodation.

A new census of "rough sleepers", conducted by a team of searchers on the night of Sunday June 17, has found only 65 people sleeping rough within a 3km radius of the Sky Tower, 16 fewer than in the last count in May 2005.

But the number classed as homeless in temporary accommodation more than doubled from 26 to 69, including a big jump to 32 in the James Liston Hostel in Freemans Bay.

There were 19 in the Airedale St night shelter, nine in the Salvation Army's Epsom Lodge, five in drug and alcohol detoxification and two each in police cells and Auckland Hospital's emergency department. The last three places were not counted in the last survey.

City Mission crisis care leader Wilf Holt said fewer searchers took part in this year's exercise, but he believed the teams accurately picked up a drop in the number of people sleeping rough in streets, parks and vacant buildings.

"I always ring them every 40 minutes or so to check that they are safe and I would have expected that within the first half hour people would be ringing in saying they had found people," he said.

"I was ringing them and it was like, 'It's embarrassing, we haven't found anybody."'

He said the results reflected a big increase in the social work effort for homeless people since the first such census which found 64 people sleeping rough in May 2004. The increase to 81 people found in the 2005 census was "because we got better at it".

"I don't think we had a rough-sleeper worker in 2004. One had just resigned," Mr Holt said.

The mission now employs two people who work with rough sleepers during the day to help them to find accommodation and deal with issues such as health and legal problems.

In addition, since February it has had a half-time outreach worker funded by the city council, Charlotte Ama, who spends two nights and the early hours of two mornings a week contacting homeless people in the streets and parks, always with a volunteer from the Salvation Army or the Methodist Mission.

She refers people to the daytime staff or directly to health, drug and alcohol, counselling and accommodation providers.

But Mr Holt said the big jump in temporary accommodation reflected a lack of long-term supported housing for people with mental health and other needs.

Housing NZ did not take some homeless people who would cause problems for other tenants.

"For many of our guys who don't have contact with the mental health services, there is no suitable accommodation in the CBD for people with those conditions, and invariably it goes with drug or alcohol use," he said.

The City Mission plans to fill the gap with a $70 million redevelopment of its site in Hobson St which will include 80 one-bedroom flats for the homeless, with social workers on site.

The latest survey found that just over half (51 per cent) of those on the streets and in parks and vacant buildings were again Maori, with one Pacific Islander, down slightly from 58 per cent in the combined Maori/Pacific group in 2005.

Most of the rest (26 per cent) were European, with 5 per cent Asian and 17 per cent whose ethnicity could not be determined.

Four-fifths (79 per cent) were male, with 17 per cent female and 5 per cent where searchers did not get close enough to be sure.

The most common age group (29 per cent) was people in their thirties, then the forties (22 per cent), 50-plus (20 per cent) and under 30 (18 per cent).

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