Ducking out for a sandwich this week, I found it was so wet and miserable that even the beggars had packed up their signs and given up. Forlorn and cold, they were huddled together under the shop verandah, wrapped in their sleeping blankets.

Meanwhile across town, Auckland councillors were getting an update on homelessness and emergency housing in the city.

The report was depressingly vague and inconclusive. A street count last October found 147 rough-sleepers within a 3km radius of the Sky Tower - an increase of 116 over 18 months. As well, "a growing number of people" were sleeping rough in West and South Auckland.

The councillors read of targets such as "increasing safety, dignity and wellbeing for people living on the streets", and of "reducing discrimination faced by rough sleepers" when they visit the public library - to be achieved "through empathy training". It wasn't clear whether it was the library staff or the homeless who were to be trained.


For Maori, who are 60 to 70 per cent of Auckland's rough sleepers, there was even a proposal "to develop hikoi/walks across Auckland that bring life to the stories of the whenua/land ..."

But of getting them off the streets and into a home, which is the ultimate goal, there was little enlightenment - even though the council has a goal to end rough sleeping, at least in central Auckland, by 2022.

Could I suggest the mayor send someone, perhaps his new Ambassador at Large, Sir Bob Harvey, to Salt Lake City to see how it can be done.

Ten years ago, Utah started a programme called Housing First, to get the state's 2000 or so chronically homeless people - those with mental illness, substance abuse or other health problems - into permanent accommodation.

Instead of being required to undertake prior drug or alcohol rehabilitation programmes and/or mental health counselling, the homeless were given apartments, no questions asked.

They could drink, take drugs, have mental breakdowns without repercussions, as long as they didn't hurt anyone or disturb their neighbours.

Far from being the disaster many predicted, the experiment proved a remarkable success. Once settled in secure housing, the "homeless" proved much more likely to address their other issues.

For the community, the cost of providing assisted housing has proved considerably less than the court, police and medical emergency costs these people had been incurring previously.


The remarkable experiment was backgrounded this year in the magazine Mother Jones. Wednesday's report to the Auckland Council prompted me to revisit the article. It's by Scott Carrier and available online.

The programme was trialled by New York psychologist Sam Tsemberis who reasoned, "they're schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatised, brain damaged. What if we don't make them pass any tests or fill out any forms? They aren't any good at that stuff.

"Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counselling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community ..."

In a test in New York, Tsemberis and associates provided apartments for 242 chronically homeless people. After five years, 88 per cent were still in their apartments and the cost of caring for them was "a little less" than it would have been had they remained on the streets.

In Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, a similar trial was subsequently conducted with 17 of "the worst of the worst"of local homeless. After two years, 14 were still in their apartments. The other three had died.

Carrier reports that "Utah found that giving people supportive housing cost the system about half as much as leaving the homeless to live on the street."


Utah then set about building 1500 apartments to achieve a 10-year goal to end homelessness by 2015. At the beginning of this year it was on target. The 2000 had been reduced to 272 remaining homeless.

Compare that with Auckland's miserable aim to house 147 central city rough sleepers by 2022, using, it seems, empathy training and hikoi walks around town.

Let's get serious. The Utah experiment is being taken up around North America. Why not Auckland?

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