An invisible crisis is happening in Lower Hutt.

Homelessness.

It's affecting children, the elderly, the employed and unemployed and people in between.

No region is immune to the problem across New Zealand but Lower Hutt, which sits across the harbour from Wellington and has a population of 100,000, has had a troubling increase in homeless people over the past few years.

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The Hutt City Council is taking a stand against the growing problem. On Tuesday, it confirmed spending about $1.5 million to improve the response to homelessness over the next three years.

The city currently has a record number of people on its Public Housing Register and a record number of Emergency Housing Special Needs Grants (EHSNG) approved.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Development figures show in March 2019 there were 370 applicants on the Housing Register.

The households on the register included 442 adults and 363 children.

That figures increased by 143 per cent since March 2017.

Private sector rents have also been increasing and bond data shows there's very little turnover of tenancies.

Lower Hutt had also been seeing a number of people moving from Wellington City to live in the Hutt because of cheaper rents, which was contributing to the demand.

The council doesn't have a number of the people sleeping in cars, improvised shelter or staying with family but are aware of individuals and families sleeping rough in locations across the city.

It also knows homelessness is likely to increase in the short-term, with the limited supply of affordable homes and pressure on rented housing.

Wainuiomata community board member Keri Brown has worked with hundreds, or thousands, of families who've experienced homelessness over the past five years.

She advocated the city council for a homelessness strategy and action plan to be put in place.

"Many children and families are invisible, they're the invisible face of homelessness.

"We've got a relatively low-income area compared to the sky-rocketing rents, so people are struggling to get into a rental. It's just everyday people here.

"They're hidden because they're living in places like motels and sheds. They can feel quite ashamed and embarrassed at the situation they're in, through no fault of their own."

She said the strategy was about everybody taking ownership of the problem and have everyone take part in the conversation.

The strategy will see $560,000 spent in 2019/20 and $520,000 spent in both the second and third year after that.

It'll see the council working with government, housing providers and NGO's to improve the response to the problem.

The strategy would include helping access to private rented accommodation, providing housing advice and advocacy and the prevention of homelessness.

The current situation meant support agencies didn't have the capacity to focus on prevention and were instead taking a reactive approach.

On Tuesday, councillor Josh Briggs said it was a crisis.

"There needs to be a significant amount of work done around prevention and reduction of homelessness in our city before we stop hearing the stories of children and young people and their families sleeping in cars and sleeping in tents."

Deputy mayor David Bassett also put through a recommendation, which was carried, to make a call to central government for support.

Councillor Margaret Cousins said they needed to keep the pressure on government.

"We have a huge amount of empty government land on the eastern side of the city, and in other places. We need to get those developments going."

Residents taking it into their own hands to help

Lower Hutt residents who had their own experiences with homelessness are going out in the community to give a helping hand.

Edwina and Junior Simi have gone out and mapped the situation around the city, offering hot bread and soup to those who need it too.

"We've discovered families with children living in their cars. We've discovered people in their tents in the backyard of the council building. Many of them are waiting for housing. Many of them don't even know what they're entitled to," Edwina Simi said.

Sandy Jenson and Princess have also been scoping the situation and offering advice and advocacy to those affected.

"We know that's not the answer but at least it's a start."

In the space of an hour, they saw 22 cars with rough sleepers near the Petone foreshore area.

"We're seeing up to three or four carloads where there's been two or three children in the car as well. We've also noticed it's not just unemployed but it's employed people as well who are unable to afford housing and have to deal with it by sleeping in a car."

Jenson said they needed to start addressing the cause, rather than putting a band-aid over the problem.

"The funding is an absolute necessity but where that money goes and how it's spent is just as equally as important as the amount that's coming."

Other departments feeling the pressure

The Hutt Valley District Health Board said it was seeing a steady increase in patients presenting as homeless.

Trish Chivers, the DHB's professional lead for social work, addressed councillors on Tuesday and said they supported the strategy after seeing increasing pressure on their workers.

In 2017, they undertook a six-week study where they encountered 24 people who were homeless through the DHB. Workers said it was a quiet period.

Social workers were spending an average of 11 and a half hours in that time helping with housing needs.

Delays in discharging were also impacting on the hospital. On average homeless patients were having discharging delayed by nine and a half days because of a lack of housing.

Chivers said in the past six weeks they had an elderly woman come in who was evicted from her home.

"She came to the hospital because she had nowhere else to go. She stayed with us for three to four weeks while we tried to source her accommodation and she had to leave the region because we couldn't find any in the Hutt Valley."

"We also had a child come in with a respiratory illness... speaking to that mother, she had twin children at home as well. She was homeless and living with her sister. Her sister had three children and they were living in a two-bedroom property with six children under five."

MP for Rimutaka Chris Hipkins and Housing Minister Phil Twyford unveilling plans for 37 state houses in Naenae / Emme McKay
MP for Rimutaka Chris Hipkins and Housing Minister Phil Twyford unveilling plans for 37 state houses in Naenae / Emme McKay

Government support for the growing issue

In the quarter ending March 2019 for Lower Hutt, 803 emergency housing grants totalling $1,320,659 were approved.

Wellington City, which has double the population of Lower Hutt, had 364 grants approved in the same time.

Andrew Plant, deputy chief executive of strategic purchasing and public housing supply, said the council was aware of people living in hotels and motels.

"While our preference is to see people placed in stable, long-term accommodation such as public or transitional housing, the EHSNG is available to meet the cost of short-term accommodation, usually a motel, for individuals and families with an immediate housing need."

Community housing and transitional housing providers were also feeling the pressure.

Philippa Wells, Hutt City women's refuge manager, said the refuge was putting more time into supporting women finding housing, when it could be doing better things.

"The women sometimes give up and return to the abuser because it just takes too long to find housing. The women feel very disillusioned and as staff we also feel this, although perhaps not to the same degree."

The council had agreed to participate in the Governance of Housing First in the Hutt Valley and Wellington along with partners.

Housing First is a government-funded programme targeting the sharp end of homelessness – people who are sleeping rough and had been sleeping rough for the past 12 months.

The Government announced additional funding in the Wellbeing Budget for the programme in Wellington. Services for up to 200 people in Wellington City and the Hutt were expected to start this month.

The council said after conversations, it had no date for when it would start in Lower Hutt, but believed practical implementation may begin later this year.