A review is under way after Auckland Council wrongly classed an elderly woman living in a car on a Remuera street as a freedom camper, despite concerns she was homeless and wouldn't make it through winter alive.
A woman, believed to be in her 70s, was yesterday found dead in her Suzuki Swift that had sat on St Vincent Ave for months and was being used as her home.
The woman, regarded by local residents in the upmarket central suburb as well kept but private, had arrived in the street in March.
A resident in the neighbourhood near where the elderly woman parked said her family had made six attempts to get authorities to check on the pensioner but nothing seemed to have happened until yesterday morning when staff from the Auckland City Mission, who had been contacted the previous day, did a welfare check.
They found the woman dead in her vehicle and raised the alarm.
"This could have been avoided if earlier calls for help were responded to months ago," said the woman.
"It's a complete failure by council and police."
An Auckland Council manager yesterday confirmed to the Herald they had looked into the situation when the elderly woman had come to their attention two months ago but wrongly regarded her as a freedom camper and closed the case.
"The council received a complaint from a resident in May, and several subsequent follow ups, which we mistakenly categorised and closed as an incidence of freedom camping – rather than a situation that required escalation," said the council's manager of compliance response and investigations Kerri Fergusson.
"On occasion, we will visit a site where individuals are reported to be sleeping in vehicles to see whether there is anything we might be able to do to assist. This usually includes referring a person to another agency or raising the situation with that organisation. This is often managed on a case-by case basis as we recognise that effective outreach takes time, is specific and focused on the individual.
"While we are not an organisation equipped to deal with the welfare or mental health needs of individuals, we have established relationships with support agencies and play a support role to those agencies – in a more 'behind the scenes' manner.
"We will review our reporting processes to ensure that our teams are better prepared to respond to calls like these."
Fergusson advised people to contact social support agencies directly if they had concerns about rough sleepers or homelessness as many people in this situation were well known to those agencies.
The resident said the elderly woman had arrived on the busy Remuera street in March and spent every night sleeping in the back seat.
As the months grew colder the local became increasingly concerned for her welfare.
"She'd been there for months and months and we couldn't just sit by - she's old."
Because it wasn't an urgent police matter she called *105 and recorded a message.
"I followed up again and rang again because she was still there," she said.
"I have no idea if they turned up once or did anything so I followed it up again."
Police have been approached for comment.
The resident said that because she felt she wasn't making headway she turned to Auckland Council for help.
"We said to them, 'She's not going to survive winter and she'll die in that car'.
"We said that back then and it just seemed to fall on deaf ears. No one seemed to want to know."
This week the woman found a link to the Auckland City Mission to report people sleeping rough. She submitted the online form yesterday.
"She was still there and I just didn't like the thought of it, especially if she could get help."
The neighbour said City Mission staff who arrived around 8am discovered the woman had died inside the parked vehicle.
Despite trying to get help for the woman she was upset it proved too late.
"It's a really s**t feeling."
"People are doing it tough at the moment and there are people that can help. If it's not recognised and they don't get that help then that's what happens. "
She said the woman was always well kept but largely remained to herself.
"She'd never move the car but she would come and go from the car."
The older woman didn't appear to have many possessions but spent a lot of time in the small car.
"She would be in the back seat a lot," said the resident.
The Auckland City Mission said they were "deeply saddened" by the death.
"While we cannot comment on the cause of her death, we categorically believe that nobody should be sleeping in a car and that everybody has a right to adequate housing, enough nutritious food to eat, and access to healthcare," said a spokesperson.
"The reality in Auckland is that far too many people are going without, and on a daily basis we respond to the needs of those who come to us with care, compassion, and support for however long and in whatever way needed."
Police said they were called to a report of a sudden death on St Vincent Ave yesterday morning.
At this stage there were no suspicious circumstances and the matter would be referred to the Coroner.