Auckland Mayor John Banks has told the city's homeless that they have just as much right to live in the city as stray cats.
Mr Banks and councillors shared lunch with several dozen homeless people yesterday at the Methodist Mission's Lifewise soup kitchen in Airedale St, just across Queen St from the Mayor's Town Hall office.
He brought reassurances after the council asked officials last month to look into "moving along" rough sleepers on public footpaths.
"Please don't interpret anything we may have said publicly as treating you as second-class citizens," Mr Banks said.
But he chose an unusual comparison when he told the group that he had been out late on Monday night feeding stray cats, as he often did after a late-night meeting.
"I'm not here today to compare you to stray cats, but what I would say is that stray cats have as much right to live in this city as I do. Stray cats have as much right to live in the city as you do," he said.
"Companion animals in this city and all creatures have as much right to live in this city as we do, so every creature needs to be treated with respect and dignity."
He described himself as the city's "servant leader" who was the servant of all its citizens, including thehomeless.
"We want you to feel welcome in this city ," he said.
He told the Herald later that the homeless included people who were mentally unwell, addicted to drugs, alcohol or solvents, and, in a small minority of cases, "garden variety criminals".
"Going into the [2011 Rugby] World Cup, we want to make sure first and foremost that these people are safe and secure," he said.
"There will be 66,000 visitors to this city. It's an ongoing process for Lifewise and the city to engage in these discussions."
Despite the references to cats, his message went down well. The head of the Auckland City Mission's welfare committee, Lewis Midwood, said he was glad the Mayor came. "At least he's come to the table. It's a start."
Lifewise community worker Steve McLuckie said sponsors, including Air New Zealand and New World supermarkets, had put up $20,000 to send five homeless people from Auckland and three from Wellington to the Homeless World Cup soccer tournament in Melbourne from December 1 to 7 - the first time New Zealand has taken part.
The agency's community services manager, John McCarthy, gave councillors and other agencies a plan to boost support for homeless people moving into homes run by Housing NZ, mental health services or private boarding houses.
"There are huge gaps in our mental health system that mean that people end up homeless," he said. "The way people are discharged from hospitals and the criminal justice system means there are large gaps that people fall through on to the street.
"The issue is about leadership. There isn't a Government structure to end homelessness in New Zealand. There isn't a go-to government department that is co-ordinating this in any way, shape or form."
The plan has been drawn up jointly by Lifewise, the City Mission and city council staff. It was presented yesterday to Housing NZ, the Auckland District Health Board, the Social Development Ministry, the Corrections Department, police and the Accident Compensation Corporation.
The agencies are due to meet again in a month.