US veteran offers hand to homeless

By Nicola Shepheard

On her early morning walks, Jacqui Turner sees a side of central Auckland you'll never find in the tourist brochures. Turner lives in a city apartment around the corner from Auckland City Mission, and every morning she has to step around homeless people.

"They sleep in the doorways, they squat in an empty building, they use the gutter as a toilet.

"They go through rubbish bins, sleep on the footpath in the middle of the day," she says.

"They've got these dogs, and you can't walk up the street in front of them because you don't feel safe - they're most probably harmless, but you wouldn't know, would you?

"It's not a good look. We've got all these tourists coming for the World Cup, and some of them are going to stay in the city."

With the Rugby World Cup looming ever closer, Turner is happy Auckland City councillor Paul Goldsmith is championing a new bylaw to stop rough sleeping on inner-city streets.

Goldsmith received flak when he mooted the bylaw, which will be considered in detail in May. Goldsmith says it's simply about enforcing standards for behaviour, which would apply to everyone.

Such a ban is not enough on its own, according to American "homelessness czar" Philip Mangano, who arrives in New Zealand today.

Mangano, a Bush Administration appointee who now reports to President Barack Obama, will be meeting politicians, including Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast and Housing Minister Phil Heatley.

He believes that homelessness can be eradicated, within 10 years - and New Zealand's politicians are listening.

Peter Ravlic, who owns the busy Mrs Higgins Oven Fresh Cookie stall on Auckland's Queen St, backs urgent action on homelessness.

"People have been harassed in daylight - customers have been asked for money while I'm serving them."

The latest street count, taken one night last June, found 91 rough sleepers and 604 other people in boarding houses and shelters - the so-called secondary homeless - just within a 3km radius of Auckland's Sky Tower. This is almost certainly an underestimate.

There were also 267 vacant boarding house beds, proving more is needed than bricks and mortar.

There are no official counts of homelessness in New Zealand (Statistics New Zealand is working towards including one in the next census).

One guesstimate is 20,000, extrapolated from Victoria, Australia, which has a similar population to New Zealand.

This includes the "hidden homeless" - men, women and children living out of garages or cars, or crammed into overcrowded, unsafe houses and boarding homes with little security or control over their environment.

Auckland mayor John Banks is unconvinced homelessness can be abolished, given its complexity.

"There are various streams of homelessness, from dispossessed and lonely to the seriously ill or addicted, to predatory criminals. To say that we will never have people sleeping rough is not practical.

"I'm not satisfied the matter is manageable."

Banks says he speaks from experience: he was homeless at 18, and slept in a car in the Auckland Domain for a year until he was rescued by Salvation Army workers.

"We'll only get on top of the issue when the government agencies and local authorities have the same commitment as the good samaritans working in the churches and charities."

He argues the impetus has to come from government agencies, who are "best placed and well-funded", but insists he is open to ideas at the local level.

Until last November, Tere Rehua, 34, had been homeless, in one way or another, most of his life. From age 8 in his hometown of Te Awamutu, he'd been in and out of foster homes, boarding houses, shelters and the streets. He had spells in jail for burglary, theft and arson.

From 2000, he lived on Auckland's streets for eight years, scavenging drinks jettisoned by clubbers, watching his back.

On nights he was too drunk to make it back to his crash-pad in one of the city parks, he'd sleep in the doorway of Lifewise, formerly the Methodist Mission, where he'd get breakfast.

A particularly bad binge shocked him into weaning himself off the grog. An anger management course calmed the scrapper in him.

But it took the new one-stop-shop services at Lifewise, which includes regular visits by a Housing New Zealand worker, to open his mind to the possibility of leaving the streets.

"I didn't know how to look for help [before] then," he says.

Five months ago he shifted into a rented bedsit in central Auckland. He's a changed man.

He's personable, well-presented, articulate and self-possessed. He's had help learning how to keep a house; he has an automatic payment set up to pay the rent from his benefit, and a new paid part-time position at Lifewise.

The best things about having his own place. "To have a shower when I want to. To have cooked meals when I want. To sit in front of the telly and have a cold drink in a proper bedsit, instead of cardboard. That little bit of independence."

Rehua is one of 10 chronic homeless rehoused by the new Lifewise programme launched last April. It follows the "housing first" philosophy that is nudging out the soup-kitchen approach to homelessness in Western countries, now maligned for nurturing dependency.

The basic idea is to actively support people to find and remain in housing by "wrapping round" other services, such as mental health and addiction treatment and budgeting advice.

Using this approach, Wellington's Downtown Community Ministry has rehoused some 250 people in the past three-and-a-half years with $130,000 annual funding from the capital's city council.

Auckland City Council has a yearly $50,000 grant for homelessness measures; none of Auckland's other councils have earmarked funding.

When Lifewise centre manager Corie Haddock says what he does, he gets all the homeless stereotypes: "They're too lazy, why don't they just get a job", "They're all junkies", or "It's a lifestyle choice".

"Homelessness is only a 'choice'," he says, "when you run out of every other option.

"Once you're trapped in it, it's like any other destructive cycle: your life becomes chaotic, you need someone to help break that cycle."

Agencies such as Lifewise and Downtown say they know how to do just that; but they need political leadership, will and resourcing.

"In America, homelessness is a huge problem because it went unchecked for years. Here, a decision has to be made: we either deal with it now and stop it before it inflates into something massive; or we wait 10 years and when it will be on a far greater scale."

PHILIP MANGANO is credited with beginning to do what was unthinkable only years ago: eradicating homelessness in the United States. The silver-coiffed, dark-suited "Homelessness Czar" was appointed by the former president in 2002, and continues in the Obama Administration.

One of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2007, Mangano has persuaded 350 US jurisdictions to adopt 10-year plans to end homelessness, and spread his ideas to Canada and Australia.

Mangano fashions himself as an abolitionist, intentionally invoking the anti-slavery rhetoric.

The epiphany that convinced the former band manager to dedicate his life to working for the "poorest poor" came when he was watching a Franco Zeffirelli film about St Francis of Assisi. He calls homelessness a "moral, spiritual and humanitarian disgrace", a "human tragedy".

However well-meaning, he condemns attempts to simply help people survive on the streets - or to make them "prove" their fitness for housing through mental health and other programmes - as entrenching the problem.

His first targets were the hardest cases: the 10 per cent of homeless who were long term and mentally ill. Between 2005 and 2007, this group fell by 30 per cent from 176,000 on any given night to 124,000. The total number of people living on the street or in shelters fell 12 per cent to 671,888.

However, the recession is fuelling a rise in family homelessness.

This week, Lifewise and the Coalition to End Homelessness is bringing Mangano to New Zealand. He will speak to local and national politicians, and address a conference in Christchurch.

Speaking on the phone from San Francisco, Mangano says if New Zealand has around 20,000 homeless, we could rehouse everyone within 10 years, with political will and leadership, research-driven, co-ordinated strategy and enough funding.

Mangano uses the lingo and practices of the business world: "accountability", "research-driven, "results-oriented strategies", and jaunty soundbites such as "a plan that drives the nonsense out and gets to the common sense and the dollars and sense of homelessness".

He encourages communities to do cost-benefit studies, which invariably show it's cheaper to place someone in supported housing than to keep them alive on the streets, taking into account hospital, police and other costs.

US studies show housing costs vary from US$13,000 to US$25,000 ($23,400 to $45,000) per person per year, compared with US$35,000 to US$150,000 to leave that person homeless. Such stark ratios are the most powerful way to win over political leaders, business and the public, Mangano has found.

Agencies such as Lifewise and Downtown are already practising much of what he preaches; but Mangano says it will only work with buy-in from local leaders.

John McCarthy of Lifewise has practical ideas: councils could offer rate rebates to private boarding house landlords as an incentive to allocate rooms to people being rehoused; Housing New Zealand could lease rooms in private boarding houses to ease the national 10,000 waiting list for state homes.

Auckland City Mission is already working with Housing New Zealand on an 80-bed accommodation block that is expected to gain a resource consent by the end of April.

Housing Minister Phil Heatley says the Government supports goals "to reduce homelessness". It has committed to building 69 more state homes on top of the 475 promised by Labour for the current financial year.

It is also helping fund other temporary accommodation. Heatley recognises a need for more emergency housing and accommodation for women's refuges throughout New Zealand.

Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett says the reasons people are homeless "are many and varied. We're open to listening to solutions about how to help those people. In the meantime government agencies are working closely with community organisations to provide support and housing to those that need it. But there's simply no easy fix to this issue."

Lifewise's McCarthy puts it differently.

"This is a problem we can solve, but do we want to? If we want to, we can."

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