Rough sleeping in New Zealand was all but eliminated in just six weeks during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Charities who work with the homeless say there are only a handful of people left on the streets in all of the major centres, some of whom had refused help.

The organisations are tentatively and quietly celebrating the milestone, which was a distant goal before the Covid-19 lockdown.

"It feels like an amazing achievement," said Zoe Truell, a manager at Lifewise. "It is something we couldn't have dreamed of being possible or actually happening two months ago."

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"It would be wrong to say we have done 100 per cent," said Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly. "But it's the closest we've come in a generation to getting everyone off the street."

Non-government organisations (NGOs) in Rotorua and Wellington reported similar success.

"On the face of it, almost the entire street living community is now housed," said Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge.

"Potentially, we may be the only capital city in the world that doesn't have a street living community right now."

The bigger challenge - keeping them off the street permanently - is yet to come. Many more people are expected to be made homeless as the economic downturn bites. And placing people with high needs in motels for months could create new problems.

There are also many more "invisible" homeless living in garages and other substandard or insecure housing.

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But Government and NGOs believe the pandemic has presented a rare chance to eliminate rough sleeping because of the sudden availability of affordable housing and accommodation.

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A large number of motels, units, and Airbnb properties were vacant because of the dramatic drop-off in tourists, international students, and businesspeople who commuted to major centres for work.

NGOs are now racing to lease them and expand their housing stock.

"We will either grab it or lose it," said Farrelly.

"It's the closest we've come in a generation to getting everyone off the street." Chris Farrelly said the pandemic had prompted a remarkable response to homelessness. Photo / Dean Purcell

A preliminary study by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development found that 1400 people in insecure housing around New Zealand were moved into motels during the Covid-19 lockdown to prevent them from contracting or spreading the virus. Around 640 of them had been sleeping on the street or in a car.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the Government would guarantee them accommodation until at least next April.

It has put aside $107m to house 1200 people, which Woods said would allow "breathing room" for permanent houses to be found. Around 400 people are no longer expected to need their motel rooms once New Zealand is in alert level 1.

Homelessness has long been a social and political shame for this country, and the most glaring symptom of a housing crisis. The speed at which nearly every rough sleeper was housed in March and April raised questions about why it could not have been done earlier.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the Government's job was not yet done, and the next challenge was finding permanent homes for rough sleepers. Photo / Hagen Hopkins (Getty)
Housing Minister Megan Woods said the Government's job was not yet done, and the next challenge was finding permanent homes for rough sleepers. Photo / Hagen Hopkins (Getty)

Woods said ending homelessness was always the Government's goal but the Covid-19 situation just accelerated it. She also noted the unique circumstances which the pandemic had created, in particular the sudden availability of temporary and permanent housing.

"It was a silver lining that came about under Covid," she said. "We were well positioned to move quickly."

Woods also stressed that housing people in motels was not a permanent solution.

"Our responsibility and challenge as a Government is to now make sure that we … don't return to how things were before."

Hamon Ra Toy, Lisa Ann McKimmon and their daughter Sire Ra were living in a tent on Waiheke Island when Covid arrived in New Zealand. They have been placed in a motel in Epsom. Photo / Michael Craig
Hamon Ra Toy, Lisa Ann McKimmon and their daughter Sire Ra were living in a tent on Waiheke Island when Covid arrived in New Zealand. They have been placed in a motel in Epsom. Photo / Michael Craig

Among those who were placed in a motel during lockdown were Hamon Ra Toy, Lisa Ann McKimmon and their 3-year-old daughter Sire Ra.

The family had been living in a tent on Waiheke Island for three months, after unexpectedly having their lease ended on a rental property in Titirangi.

They only became aware of the seriousness of the pandemic when they ferried into the Auckland CBD for a doctor's appointment the day before New Zealand went to alert level 4.

"We just panicked," said Toy, who was recovering from open heart surgery. The family feared living in a tent or their car while the country was locked down. They contacted Lifewise, who found them a motel room within an hour.

"We landed on our feet," Toy said. "We would literally be freezing in a tent somewhere."

McKimmon said she had never struggled to find a rental property until recently.

"It's definitely harder. But we're stronger now. Stronger than we've ever been."

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