Corazon Miller looks at how deaths on the street are counted on the final day of the Death on the Street series.

Advocates for the homeless estimate one person dies roughly every two weeks on the streets of Auckland - but there are no official figures.

For the most part their deaths are going largely unnoticed, except by those closest to them.

Chief executive of social agency Lifewise, Moira Lawler, said at the moment there was no national body keeping tabs on how the homeless were living and dying.

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"There is no concentrated resourced effort to prevent these deaths.

"At the moment, the appalling truth is unless you are the whanau of that person who died, there is no reason to care.

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"We don't remember people who died on the street, because we didn't know them in the first place, we always counted them as invisible.

"They are invisible in life and invisible in death."

She said tracking morbidity and mortality within the homeless community could help generate understanding around why people were dying and what needed to be done to help.

"It would be useful to track deaths of people in insecure housing because it will be higher than the norm ... as to where you start? I don't know …"

Lawler said good work was being done in the sector and both the previous and current governments had been working on strategies to improve the situation.

Plans to build a new facility, supported by both governments, were under way and once complete would see accommodation set up for 110 people. There would also be a community centre, commercial kitchen, activity rooms, a cafe, art gallery and medical, dental and social service facilities.

This would be run in line with the Housing First programme that has, since its establishment in 2017, housed more than 200 people. Its focus is to get people into a house first, then provide them with the services needed to stay there.

In Auckland, where there's believed to be the largest concentration of homelessness, Mayor Phil Goff has pledged council will do its bit to help - starting with its first region-wide street count in September.

"I think it's something that all of us need to contribute to. The Government, the councils around the country, our NGOs, our private sectors and each of us individually."

But Lawler said a national strategy to tackle homelessness would take things a step forward.

New Zealand is one of 15 OECD countries that does not yet have a strategy. It also does not have a single entity that measures the numbers of homeless - though the Government did have plans to work towards keeping better tabs on the numbers.

The bench at St Peter's Church, Onehunga, Auckland, where homeless man Keith Johnson died aged 57. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The bench at St Peter's Church, Onehunga, Auckland, where homeless man Keith Johnson died aged 57. Photo / Brett Phibbs

However, it did not, nor were their plans for, measuring mortality and morbidity across the homeless population - measures which tend to be used internationally to keep tabs on health and establish ways to prevent unnecessarily early deaths.

These figures were not held by Ministry of Social Development, the Coroner's Office, the Ministry of Health, Statistics New Zealand, or the New Zealand Police.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said it did not collect such information and after "further investigation neither Coronial Services or the Health Quality and Safety Commission holds this information".

Police were unable to collate figures around deaths on the street, neither was the Ministry of Social Development, and the Coroner's Office was only able to provide a piece of the puzzle through 130 reports it released looking at deaths of those classified as being of "no fixed abode" since 2012.

A Herald investigation into the reports from 2012 to 2018 found 42 deaths of people who were more likely than not homeless.

It showed that in 2018 one man died on the streets and in 2017 there were six deaths of homeless people that the Coroner's Office released findings on.

Homeless beg for money to survive on Queen Street in Auckland's CBD. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Homeless beg for money to survive on Queen Street in Auckland's CBD. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Another one death on the street, still pending an official report, was that of Haami Manahi, 59, who was found dead in South Auckland in the middle of last winter.

There were at least another two within Auckland City the Herald was told of and Peter Davies at the Calder Medical Centre, connected to the Auckland City Mission, counted 11 rough sleepers who accessed the centre, who died in 2017.

It therefore seems the number of those who have died on the streets, or as a result of significant time spent living on the streets, could be higher, given there were likely a number of other deaths not captured by any official statistics.

In Australia, agencies working with the homeless community have called for homelessness to be listed as an official cause of death on the coroner's reports, as one way of measuring mortality.

Though it's not listed as an official cause of death on reports in New Zealand, a Coronial Services spokeswoman said if it was a factor "this is considered as part of the inquiry and detailed in the findings".

Massey University societal psychologist Darrin Hodgetts said though he would stop short of telling coroners what to do, he couldn't understand why homelessness couldn't be put down as a cause of death.

"If someone died on the streets of hypothermia, it's quite clear why they died. It's hypothermia caused by homelessness."

Hodgetts said there was qualitative work being done on morbidity and mortality within the homeless community but finding a way to get exact numbers was tough.

"The problem is you are dealing with a transient population, it's a nightmare statistically, the numbers are not as reliable.

"I'm not sure, in a fragmented landscape like ours, if that is practical ... is more research our priority or is getting more money into services our priority?"

It's difficult to ascertain the numbers from reports filed with official agencies as people tend to be classified not as homeless but as being of "no fixed abode" - an umbrella term that also includes tourists, people passing through, or someone who has recently moved.

It also fails to take into account someone who may have spent the past 25 years homeless, but was housed shortly before death.

City Missioner Chris Farrelly said he was supportive of a move towards tracking the health of the homeless and the numbers of homeless who died.

"I really do think it would be helpful, a lot of it is invisible, how do we put light on a reality.

"There is significant sadness with this, and I think that's also picked up by the sadness of the street community."

Housing Minister Phil Twyford did not rule out the possibility that one day there would be a measure developed to better keep track of morbidity and mortality among the homeless.

However, the Government's current focus was on getting more reliable data around the numbers of homeless on a regular basis, before it began to consider other measures.

He said homelessness was a priority for the Government.

"I think most Kiwis would regard it as intolerable that we have 4000-plus New Zealanders living without shelter in situations of extraordinary risk, from teenagers who are the most vulnerable in that risk, to older New Zealanders with all sorts of health problems.

"We have to do something about it."