"Give us back our town, these people are taking it over."
That's the call of long-time Rotorua publican Reg Hennessy who is calling for the city's leaders to take charge and do something about unruly "street people" hanging around the city.
He says retailers, shoppers and tourists have endured weeks of threats, violence, intimidation and abuse from some people who use or are associated with users of the night shelter on Pukuatua St.
Hennessy, who with his partner Sue owns Hennessy's Irish Bar on Tutanekai St, said he supported the homeless shelter and the work it was doing but called for it to be moved out of the central city urgently.
His calls are backed by the man who runs the night shelter, Tiny Deane from the Visions of a Helping Hand Charitable Trust, who said he would move the night shelter if he had somewhere else to go.
Police, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick and Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey issued a joint media statement today acknowledging the problem and detailing the action plan already being worked on.
In the statement Chadwick said: "We don't want our inner city ruined because of criminal opportunists – whoever they may be."
Hennessy said he was reluctant to call those causing problems "homeless" people as he wasn't sure all of them were genuinely without homes. But the numbers were growing to a level he had never seen before, he said.
"They go there, sleep, eat, shower, some still get a benefit and then they're back on the streets doing what they do best and that is hassling those around them."
He said it had not been this bad since he started running Rotorua city centre pubs in 1994 and the "straw that broke the camel's back" was his staff being abused, spat at and himself personally attacked inside his pub this week.
He said one of his Filipino staff members, who is studying to be a nurse in New Zealand, was spat at by a "street person" for no reason and racially abused.
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Last night about 7, Hennessy spotted a man harassing a tourist for money as she walked past. He told the man to leave her alone and when he wouldn't, Hennessy took out his phone and took a photograph of the man, prompting the man to yell abuse at Hennessy.
Later, Hennessy said the man came back into his bar and yelled at him and threatened him, an attack he has caught on security camera.
After the incident, Hennessy wrote a second open letter to Chadwick and councillors, having sent one five days previously, calling for action.
Hennessy said he was not blaming the council or the mayor as it wasn't a political issue, but he was asking for them to take leadership.
"I have always supported the homeless people having a centre. I don't want them locked out but it can't be in the central city. Either we are a tourist town or we aren't? We are turning into a zombie town."
Hennessy said other retailers felt the same way but didn't want to talk publicly because of retaliation fears or people thinking they were heartless.
The Rotorua Daily Post had previously tried to talk to retailers in the area about the issue and many did not want to talk publicly.
Meanwhile, the Salvation Army store on Pukuatua St, which is near the night shelter, closed between Friday November 30 and Wednesday December 5 after several incidents in recent weeks which compromised staff and customer safety, Salvation Army corps officer Kylie Overbye said.
She said they met with the council, Ministry of Social Development, the landlord, the night shelter organisers and police, and were happy with the outcome.
The store had an incident on Wednesday, November 28 where a window was broken but that wasn't related to the night shelter, she said.
Overybye said there were varying reasons for the incidents, but at Christmas, when people were going through difficult times, this could cause people to have added stress and tension and sometimes people said or did things in frustration.
Overbye said Māori wardens were out patrolling the streets and in the stores to bring additional safety and that this was working well.
"There have been no further incidents that I know of on Pukuatua St so far.
"We're happy at this time with the measures put in place, and we felt confident to open our doors, and that the community can also be confident, because if safety was still concerning, we wouldn't have opened the doors."
Meanwhile, Deane said he had about 120 people registered to use the night shelter on Pukuatua St, which slept 40 people. It was estimated about 10 of those registered were from out of town.
He said the building was not used as a drop-in centre during the day anymore and the doors were closed between 7.30am and 8pm. Those who used the service slept there over night, used the bathrooms and showers and were given breakfast in the morning.
He said he had received several complaints from people about the behaviour of those who used the night shelter so had taken action by hiring four Maori wardens to work six days a week patrolling Pukuatua St. He said the wardens carried radios allowing them to communicate with police directly if needed.
He said while he agreed the central city was not the best location, it was the only building he could get urgently over winter that was earthquake-proofed.
"If we had somewhere else to go right now, I'd go in the blink of an eye."
He said he had Māori land on the outskirts of town but needed funding to build something on it.
However, finding people homes to live in, not a night shelter was the ultimate goal and he hoped to close the city night shelter by April or May next year.
He estimated seven lives had been saved during the winter period by the night shelter being there.
"In Auckland it's worse, they have buried 33 to 35 homeless people this year."
He wasn't sure you'd ever get them out of the city, even if the shelter moved.
"Homeless always want to stay around the city. We'd like to get funding to get vans so we can take them out, camping, fishing, but everything takes money."
Meanwhile, the joint media statement said police and the council was already working on a safety campaign in response to growing concern in recent months.
It was prompted by the results of a recent citizens' satisfaction survey which was conducted by police and showed more than half of respondents, mainly women, did not feel safe in Rotorua's inner city at night, the statement said.
Initiatives already being implemented in the central city included increased police and security staff day and night and increased monitoring of council CCTV footage. Council staff and police met again today to finalise the plan.
"We need to rid our city of this type of behaviour and we will work with police and others to achieve that result," Chadwick said.
"Safety in the community is of paramount importance for all of us and criminal, undesirable and intimidating behaviour is totally unacceptable."
She said a longer-term approach will be implemented but the busy summer period was the initial focus.
The joint approach and response will be constantly monitored and reassessed in the New Year as the council and the police continue working on longer-term actions.
"We have created a more vibrant inner city, including work to improve safety, but having more people around can also create more opportunity for undesirable behaviour. Both council and the police have a role in dealing with this," Mayor Chadwick says.
Rotorua police area commander Inspector Anaru Pewhairangi said a zero tolerance and swift joint approach was being taken.
"Standover tactics is criminal behaviour and there is no room for intimidation in our city.
"We are aware reporting incidents isn't necessarily happening and we want to reassure people that there will be a response if there is trouble.
"Working together with council provides an opportunity to bring about change and we also need support from others – this is not just a police and council problem.
"We've all been concerned about a concentration of anti-social behaviour and activity since the relocation of the drop-in centre and are also trying to work with the operators to eliminate those concerns. However, we can't say that the people using the drop-in centre are solely responsible for the behaviour we are seeing in the inner city. What we do know is we have a problem and we will be taking action," he said.
Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey said he was pleased to see the council and police working together to deal with what seemed a growing problem.
"As MP, I fully support these initiatives and will take these initiative to my colleagues in Wellington who face similar problems in their towns and cities.
"As a CBD business owner, I am also relieved that we will have increased security options in our inner city. We can't do business when our customers and staff are feeling unsafe. Heading into our peak season, it's reassuring to know there is a plan in place," Coffey said.
"Rotorua needs to remain a place attractive to both locals and visitors, and we all need to band together to achieve that outcome."