"That's the bad lane out there" Mandy Lusk says, gesturing through the giant wooden barn doors closed like some Middle-earth fortress.
It's a muted description for a strip of concrete that has been the site of a rape, suicides, a gang brawl, drug deals and teams of armed police over the past few months.
Gore Street Lane leads like a garden path to the front door of Vivace restaurant, owned by Lusk.
The venue's elegant sidebar is dark and empty - but it's not after hours.
It's 9pm on a Friday night and it's supposed to be the bustling centre of the Auckland CBD with foot traffic galore.
As the 29-year-veteran of the Auckland CBD restaurant scene says, "since the March  lockdowns, things have changed".
"It's frustrating on a night like tonight when the wind's not blowing we know that we should be busier, keep the doors open and get some walk by, but we're not and it's just a safer place to actually be," Lusk says.
"Since March we've kept the doors here closed, which means we lose quite a bit of walk-by traffic, but we also don't get the bad people trying to get in."
You also don't want the al fresco diners asking on a sunny Saturday afternoon if the glass panels that separate the outdoor tables of Vivace from Fort Street "are bulletproof".
But when you're faced with a squad of armed police storming a hotel not 10m away - as happened in April this year - it's perhaps not such an unreasonable question at 1.30pm.
"I'm like 'I know what I paid for these screens, come inside'," Lusk says with an anxious chuckle, retelling the event.
"The street wasn't closed and they [police] were looking for someone who had shot up the Sofitel."
These incidents are a sensitive subject to broach in detail. That's because they deal with vulnerable people and a Government initiative that had positive effects in the short term.
When Covid-19 hit New Zealand at the end of March last year, the Ministry of Social Development urgently moved all those who needed emergency housing into a room of some description.
Those who may not have wanted to be off the street were also compelled to be.
The action revealed how the issue of homelessness might be dealt with if it was viewed as a whole-of-society problem, helped by the Government purse being flicked wide open with the conviction of a public health emergency.
But it also meant that vulnerable people from disparate backgrounds and locations - many from outside Auckland's CBD - were suddenly crammed together into high-density hotels.
Crime stats spike like a bullet
Crime in central Auckland has spiked dramatically since before the March 2020 national lockdown.
The number of assaults recorded for the first five months of 2021 is up 63 per cent when compared with the same period in 2019.
That increase represents 1026 assault victimisations during Jan-May 2021, which is up from 628 during the same period in 2019.
The number of thefts (not including motor vehicles) against organisations recorded for the first five months of 2021 is up 59 per cent compared with the same period in 2019.
That increase represents 898 thefts during Jan-May 2021, which is up from 672 during Jan–May 2019
Thefts against organisations in Central Auckland peaked in January 2021 with 248 victimisations that month - a 90 per cent spike on pre-Covid February 2020 numbers.
While MSD and police officially won't, and can't, draw a direct link to the emergency housing intensification in central Auckland, most businesses share the same stories.
Karangahape Rd business association chairman Michael Richardson says the spike in the frequency of reports of crimes from their small business members is stark.
"We're getting reports daily, weekly and it's ranging from anti-social behaviour all the way through to vandalism," Richardson said.
"People having their windows smashed in, but no breaking and entry. People gathering outside individual businesses, which then interrupts their trade. People gathering on either side of the footpath, which means it's placing sort of a threatening cordon that people have to walk through.
"People having abuse hurled at them. Drinking and drug taking. These are issues that we haven't seen in the same way, and at the same intensity before in our areas."
It's a state of affairs the owner of CBD bottle shop Liquor Spot, Bon Seung Gu, is well aware of as he mans the counter with two other staff on a Friday night.
Gu has owned the store on Gore St for 10 years and thinks the crime has continued to get worse every year. His Liquor Spot gets robbed one to two times a month, he says.
"Yes [we worry about safety]. That's why we all work together. We try to [have more staff working at once] but it's hard working together because of the [reduced] profit," Gu says.
"We can only do it the busy times like Friday, the weekend."
One of Gu's colleagues chimes in that there was one occasion when police arrived a week after Liquor Spot had reported a theft. Staff had apprehended an offender at the time.
"We call the police and sometimes they come and sometimes they don't show up and they just call me back," Gu says.
"They just called me back and said they would try to visit our shop [to check in regularly] but they didn't keep their promise."
Stretched police resources and delayed, or non-existent, responses from beat cops was having a demoralising impact on all small businesses the Herald spoke to.
Parnell business association chair Cheryl Adamson says her members now regularly fall into a mentality of not reporting anything below violent crime.
"A lot of businesses I think are becoming quite apathetic, can't be bothered," Adamson says.
"We encourage people to report it, post the event even ... just so that it is reported, but there is a general apathy. If it's not anything serious they go 'honestly, no one's going to do anything anyway'."
Lusk too says most businesses in downtown Auckland are now resorting to registering crime on police's non-emergency 105 line, because they've given up on responses that can arrive anywhere vaguely fast enough to stop crime in the act.
"For two months every Friday, these kids would steal motor scooters, Vespas and things from across the road, and you get to the stage where you don't want to bug the cops because they can't come, they're too busy," Lusk said.
"They [111 emergency call centre] were pointing out to us that if they needed any chance of getting extra bodies on the ground you actually need to go through the process of going through the 105 and that they couldn't come.
"They didn't have the resources to come unless someone was being harmed. So unless lives were at stake, there was no way they could get here."
However, Auckland Central Area Commander Inspector Gary Davey insisted there were enough staff to deal with crime in the city's centre.
"Police in Central Auckland have sufficient resources to deal with the crime and issues within the city," Davey said.
"We are fortunate to have three teams of 10 Beat staff and also have the support of Police Support Unit, Alcohol Harm Prevention, our Prevention Team and Road Policing."
Police prevention manager for Auckland City district Inspector, Jacqui Whittaker, told the Herald last week that they "absolutely acknowledge" the concerns of CBD businesses and "feel their frustration."
"Police work closely with our business associations, Council and other interested groups and we are aware of their concerns regarding the increase in crime in Auckland's CBD," Whittaker said.
"A large amount of the issues do stem from the behaviour of people after consumption of alcohol and this is a complex issue police cannot solve this alone. Police do rely on our community to report matters to us as unfortunately we can't be everywhere.
"Police work hard every day with a number of teams focusing on the CBD by vehicle and by foot as well as concentrating on preventing alcohol related disorder and crime."
Newmarket's Knoff-Thomas concedes "there's always a low level hum of crime" in nightspots "but things have amplified" since Covid.
"Before, where there would have been a police response in some way shape or form for most crime, there's now a response for some crime, some of the time," he says.
Pleas for help
Four of Auckland's central city business associations - CBD, Parnell, K Rd and Newmarket - have made repeated approaches to the Government and the relevant ministries for assistance over the past 16 months.
The associations say they have been left without even a response or acknowledgement of their plea for help - the last one about two months ago to the Minister of Police Poto Williams requesting a meeting with her, the Minister of Social Development and the Associate Minister of Housing.
"It's still under consideration, and that was a few months ago. I did write back and say it's urgent and I've had no response," Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said.
Minister Williams did not respond to the Herald's questions last week.
"Obviously Covid has been a big change, and it's brought a different dynamic to the city. And I think what it's exposing is that we do need different ways of addressing things.
"I was here on the last night of the lockdown, the 25th of March, the Wednesday last year, and I went outside and it was 7.30 and the place was deserted, and I spoke to a couple of people on the street and I said have you got somewhere to go and they said yes.
"Now that's a great thing, because here we were in a pandemic not knowing what was hitting, and these people were outside but they did have somewhere to go.
"People have been housed but there's more thought and consideration that needs to go into what sort of housing do they need, what sort of support do they need."
K Rd business association chair Michael Richardson too says they have seen "an increase in street whānau and associated issues particularly over last year".
That's a high bar to raise for a strip still known as the closest thing Auckland has to a red-light district.
"It's ongoing, and when we delve into that what we notice is that it's very challenging for people who are in that situation to get adequate support from agencies," Richardson said.
"There seems to be some siloing amongst the agencies. So it's very hard for them to navigate into the system to get the adequate support."
Since the 2019/20 financial year all four central Auckland business associations have collectively increased their security spend by $250,000 - a 17 per cent increase on pre-Covid levels.
"We've invested in CCTV since 2015. We just keep growing the network," Parnell's Adamson says.
"What we've also found over the last six months is that collaboration amongst each other is quite useful, particularly when it comes to retailer alert systems. So we've all got systems that are either text-based or email-based where we alert retailers if there are problems in the street or antisocial behaviour."
Newmarket business association Mark Knoff-Thomas says the four city-fringe Auckland business associations have "never collaborated as much as we are now".
"We need to and we have to be proactive as much as we can," Knoff-Thomas says.
"We all have street patrols, we all have private guards patrolling the streets seven days a week, some 24 hours a day. It just depends on each area.
"But at the end of the day our resources aren't limitless, we're all not-for-profits. We don't go out and make lots of money, we just spend money, so we need some additional resource and help from other agencies, from central government to make it happen."
Yet for Lusk, there is a more clear and present danger.
"This building straight across here which is a really bad building, the Harbour Oaks, has got a whole lot of 501s that have been moved in there. Deportees," Lusk said.
"It seems to be there's far more of a gang presence. I'm useless - there's a red gang and a blue gang both in the Harbour Oaks building put there by social housing. Then you add to that the MSD guys, the 501 guys who've been kicked out."
About a month ago, a cavalcade of "gang guys" on their bikes rolled down Fort St.
"They decided to pick an argument with some construction guys who were sitting here having a beer after work, It was on a Saturday night at 5.50," Lusk said.
"It was interesting it didn't make the papers, because they smashed up the entire front of this restaurant. Everyone around here went along to try to help them because there were young little girls who work there. There were no guys working in the restaurant. There was furniture all over the road.
"The cops turned up en masse, half a dozen police vehicles, because someone finally pulled a knife at the head of a customer. But by then, by the time the police had turned up the guys had jumped on their big ginormous Harleys and driven off."
At 1am on June 24 in Gore Street Lane, which the Harbour Oaks backs onto, a serious sexual assault also occurred.
Police Detective Senior Sergeant Geoff Baber, of Auckland City CIB, confirmed to the Herald they received a report of a sexual assault in the early hours of June 24.
"Initial enquiries were made into this report and the victim was spoken to, including ensuring that support services were available for her," Barber said.
"Before the specialist interview process took place, the victim indicated she did not want to proceed with a complaint at that stage."
Lusk has her own views on the rape just metres outside her business' front door.
"This girl that got attacked, there was no where for Ubers and things to stop on the main roads any more, so people go to the side roads and I think more bad stuff happens," she said.
"It used to be that traffic could flow around the city and there were more people around. Where there are no cars late at night, it's actually quite dangerous. Stuff can happen in a heartbeat, it really can."
Such events that have led to some further drastic security measures from the Vivace owner.
"Our staff, a lot of them live in Upper Queen St and they'd all walk home at 1 or 2 in the morning and for the first time in 29 years now, one of us will wait and drive them home," Lusk said.
"You can't let them walk out there. It's a little bit sad. Auckland was one of those few cities that people felt quite safe wandering around."
Changing rent equals changing demographics?
MSD Regional Commissioner for Auckland Central and East Mark Goldsmith said the agency uses a number of motels and hotels in the Auckland CBD area for emergency accommodation - some of which offer apartment accommodation.
Goldsmith gave a more speculative explanation for the changing demographics in Auckland central since Covid-19 - suggesting it was not the direct result of MSD's placement of emergency housing tenants.
"Our observation is that over the last year apartment rents in the Auckland CBD area have fallen due to changing demand," Goldsmith said.
"As a result rents have become more affordable, and a wider cross-section of people have been able to secure private tenancies in the CBD area."
The changing clientele of Auckland CBD is also evident to 42-year-old Moses Kava, who for 11 years has been a bouncer outside a bar on Vulcan Lane.
He says the brazen flashing of gang paraphernalia has shocked him over the past year.
"Before there was hardly any gangs, but nowadays there are heaps of prospects that don't actually hesitate to declare themselves as one of the gangs. They're just ruthless nowadays. Even just coming to the door flashing [gang paraphernalia]."
Kava says personally he is not intimidated, but there is a different mentality you have to adopt when increasingly younger gang members approach.
"I've been here for too long all that business is not going to work here. But it's happened," Kava said.
"Some of them are very young, kids you know. And some of them are adults but they are still doing that kind of s***. Black Power, Headhunters, KCs. Nowadays, security wise as a bouncer the technique is different nowadays. These young guns trying to be a bouncer, they try to prove themselves, they come with that mentality."
"In my experience, if you treat them the same, with respect, nothing will happen. But if you're like starting to look at someone with intention that you look like gang members, or you're going to be a problem inside. Because they could easily read your mind. Be aware of it, but at the same time, do your job."
Avoiding the blame game
Respect is a commodity which all small business owners in the city are well versed in.
Most are deeply sensitive to the plight for those who spend their days loitering on the street.
Unlike the politicians in Wellington, those business owners inhabit the same space.
But the retailers, publicans and restaurateurs also can't deny the tension between compassion for those down on their luck and fear for the future viability of their businesses.
"It's funny, it's not a case of not in my backyard - it really isn't - but it's a case of them putting the most vulnerable people in society in the middle of the CBD where everything's expensive," Lusk says.
"So the little guy down on Smiley Mart, he got robbed three times in one night about a month ago. That's not stolen from, that's robbed. But they were robbing him for bread and milk and he charges $8 for a loaf of bread because his rental's incredibly expensive."
Vivace's Lusk points out that the Airbnb tenants that used to occupy many of the apartments and hotels around Fort St have now been replaced with the "wider cross-section of people" that MSD's Goldsmith attests to.
"People running down from an Airbnb in an apartment, they're just running down, they're going to have a piece of toast and whatever in the morning and they're going to go. They don't care what it costs - they really don't. It's a different market," Lusk said.
"Whereas a person who's stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with three kids - a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread that's going to feed a whole bunch of kids and it's expensive. You can see both sides of it. It's devastating."
Avoid the blame game
Knoff-Thomas says the Newmarket rough sleepers he and his members know are undeniably "part of our community".
"They live in our area, they have a relationship with us and our security providers and members of the public and retailers. I think there is an understanding," he says.
"No one likes to see that there is a fellow New Zealander forced to sleep on the street. The fact that it's got so bad is really upsetting and concerning for all of us. But there is another element who maybe aren't so engaged with positive communications and they're the problem."
Richardson echoes this sentiment: "I think you've got to differentiate between rough sleepers and disruptive behaviour, because the two things are very different. Disruptive behaviour has a negative impact on business and it leaves some of our retailers feeling threatened by it."
Heart of the City's Beck says: "I think it's really important we're not making a judgment on who's causing the anti social behaviour or who's creating the crime," Beck says.
"They are issues for our businesses and their customers and suppliers. We're not judging where that's coming from. I think all of us have taken a very empathetic perspective around the fact that if people are rough sleeping they need appropriate support."
Beck says they have been very supportive of the Government's Housing First model which aims to provide permanent housing quickly to those that have been on the streets for 12 months, and then tailored support to help people stay in their homes and address the needs that led to their experience of homelessness.
She just wishes there were additional "holistic solutions that are sustainable" to the dramatic changing of demographics in the central city that seem to have led to the very real crime spike.
But in the short term, Knoff-Thomas offers a blunt plea.
"Having more police on the street would be an immediate short-term solution which the ministry could do with a stroke of a pen and activate that reasonably quickly," Knoff-Thomas says.
"I think what we're seeing is not actually being acknowledged that it's happening, and the lack of response from Wellington."