Steve Braunias reports on the reality of emergency housing at two locations in West Auckland.
There would definitely have been a time when it was nice to stay at the Lincoln Court Motel on 58 Lincoln Rd in Henderson. It had a swimming pool. Its tree-lined driveway led to quiet rooms away from the traffic.
But the reviews are in - Lincoln Court has a one-star rating on Tripadvisor - and they read like a black comedy. "I survived – barely." And: "Better than sleeping in a car – I guess." Also: "Hellhole of the Pacific." The most recent review, from October 2020, was as long as an essay. Highlights include, "The oven had somebody else's underwear in there … Toilet cistern dripped constantly all day and night…The couch needed pillows put on it so that you could actually sit on it as it was so worn out that you were sitting on the wooden framing….Standing at the kitchen window making a cup of tea, I glanced out and watched people doing drugs outside their unit."
I visited on Monday morning. It was a tip. Green slime filled the deep end of the pool. A neon sign at the front office flashed a meaningless command: PLEASE KEEP QUITE. The strangest thing about it was two rooms set aside for motel guests. They were fairly tidy, and one of the rooms had a big, clean bath. Lincoln Court clings to the idea it operates as a motel but its core business is to provide emergency accommodation for long-term residents – the homeless, the unwell, the Winz "clients".
Lincoln Court is a close-up portrait of the Auckland housing crisis. Last February, the Government announced a $300m package aimed at reducing the use of motels as emergency accommodation. It doesn't appear to have made a lick of difference. Demand for emergency housing special needs grants has escalated, with 10,000 people receiving the grant between July and September last year.
The Government contracts more than 70 motels to provide housing but Winz no longer deals with Lincoln Court. "Too much of the trouble maybe," said motel owner Ted Yang, 55, with a laugh. "Every day police come here. No good." I wasn't sure why he was laughing.
Another government department, Housing and Urban Development, has a contract with the motel. Placements are also made by the Salvation Army, and the VisionWest Community Trust. I spoke with two residents who were grateful for a roof over their head. There didn't appear to be a door to the unit of Andrew Casey, 57; I parted a length of fabric that swung in the breeze, popped my head in, and surprised Andrew lying in bed. It was getting on to lunchtime. But he was wide awake, an alert, friendly man who spoke in a throaty gargle. He leapt out of bed in his clothes, and we sat at a kitchen table covered in flies.
He described his recent housing. Last year, he lived in a garage for $150 a week. "I used to shower at the Henderson pools," he said. "It's only $1." After he was evicted, he slept rough, in a park near the Boundary strip mall in Henderson, until a social worker from the Salvation Army told him there was a room at Lincoln Court. That was during lockdown. He was very happy with it. "It's private. It's clean," he claimed. "It's close and handy to facilities, like [Waitakere] hospital, in case I need a psychiatric review."
True, the microwave was "puckarooed", the TV had fused, and hot water in the shower only lasted 10 minutes. But all in all, he said, Lincoln Court was the best deal he'd had in years. Flies buzzed around our heads and I was grateful for the fresh air blowing through the doorway.
Another resident, a heavily tattooed woman wearing a black bra and track pants, smoked at her kitchen table and turned down the stereo (she was playing Bill Withers) to respond thus to an interview quest: "Nah! I don't wanna have nothing to do with anything!" But at a corner unit, Catherine Walters, 50, and her daughter Rangimarie, 17, were welcoming.
They were country people, up from Waitara; Rangimarie had only recently joined her mum, and was dazed by Auckland: "Street lights everywhere! I haven't been for a walk by myself yet. I wouldn't dare. It's not that easy up here. I went with Mum to the shops and this guy asked for $2 and then he was like, 'Oh, my brother has leukaemia, please help me.' I didn't know how to deal with that. I was like, 'I'm a 17-year-old girl, what do you expect from me?'"
Her mum came to Auckland about a year ago. "I didn't realise how bad the housing situation was," she said. "But I soon did. I went to Winz 50 times in the first two weeks for an accommodation grant. They just said, 'You have to wait.' I slept in my car for about four months until the car was stolen."
VisionWest placed her at Lincoln Court in August last year. She was grateful, especially for a room at the back of the motel, on the corner: "I don't got to see what's happening out the front – the arguing, the smashed windows, the drinking."
Both Catherine and Rangimarie are determined to make a fresh start in 2021.
"This is a big year for me and Mum," said Rangimarie.
Catherine said, "A positive year. Now that baby's here, I can look out for her."
"Mum gives me structure."
"First thing's a job. I think Countdown would be perfect for baby."
"For now, definitely," said Rangimarie. "I want to be a chef. I love cooking." She has qualifications in hospitality from Achievement NZ.
"Big year," repeated Catherine.
"Auckland's scary, but we'll make it," said Rangimarie. "I want to be a city girl." Hopeful, smart, mature; someone ought to give her a break.
There was definitely a time when emergency housing provider and former caravan park Western Park Village, further out west in Ranui at 524 Swanson Rd, was thought of as a slum. That time was very recent. John Campbell shook his head with infinite sorrow when he came here to expose it on Breakfast in June 2019. Campbell snuck in the back – walking in through the front would have made more sense, but lacked drama – and proceeded to more or less tell viewers that he was in a hellhole of the Pacific.
I visited on Monday afternoon. It was pretty cheerful. There are 220 tenants inside rows of small cabins. Christine Tait, 60, grew tomatoes, blackberries and marigolds outside her brightly painted unit; inside, she made cunning allowances for the narrow space, such as converting her shower into a wardrobe and placing an oven inside a cupboard. "I like it here," she said. "It's nice. You don't want for anything. I've made this my home."
John Campbell's visit was prompted by Villa Education Trust board member Alwyn Poole, 54, who acted as Campbell's tour guide. But when I spoke to Poole this week, he admitted it was the first time he'd ever set foot on the property. "Kids who live here just don't have a hope," he told Campbell on camera. I asked him how it was that he was able to say that with such confidence. In part, he said, his concerns were based after he spoke with the Trust's community liaison officer Tamzin Cook. I spoke to Cook this week, too; she'd only ever made one visit to Western Park, and thought it looked "dangerous".
Poole has heard from community groups such as VisionWest that things are a lot better now at Western Park. He took some credit for that. His role in the Breakfast expose, he believed, had helped to turn things around. "Not at all," responded Western Park manager Brad Heaven, 40. "Absolutely not." Nine months after the programme, Heaven took on the job of sorting out Western Park, and has initiated a range of programmes to improve conditions for the tenants. Free breakfast seven days a week, free meals five nights a week. A weekly visit from a health bus, a courtesy van to Henderson every day. Regular food parcels, a book club. The biggest difference, he thinks, is the introduction of police background checks.
I took a tour with him and spoke with eight residents. They did not include the mentally unwell tenants who lived, Heaven said, in "horrifying" conditions; but there was nowhere else for them to go. One cabin was blaring out hardcore rap. Heaven popped his head in, and shouted, "Hey mate can you do us a favour and turn it down a bit?" The music got turned down a bit. "Sweet as." That ended well, but then Heaven took a call from a woman wanting emergency accommodation.
"Which emergency housing group are you with in West Auckland?", he asked. "Yep. Okay. Well, we're totally full right now, but one could be available in the next few weeks. We do require a background check. As long as there's no recent criminal history for us to worry about, we're all good." He took down her details.
His phone rang about three minutes later. "Yes, you just did talk to me," he said. "Right. Sure. Okay…And that's fine. It depends on how recent, and the severity of it. If it's not severe, you'll be fine….Sure. It's hard, eh. Yeah. A lot of people are in the same boat as you right now…That's all good. Fingers crossed it'll all be okay, and I'll let you know as soon as something is available."
We looked in at the kitchen. Volunteers were making tonight's menu – butter chicken, and chocolate log with cream. Anne Denton, 77, known to everyone as the Bread Lady, drove up with her latest cargo of day-old bread – she's delivered it to Western Park every Monday for the past eight years. "The upgrade here has been remarkable," she said. "Brad's made very positive changes. Also, he's become a lot firmer over who comes here. The police always used to be here when I made my delivery. It almost felt like we were travelling together! But I haven't seen them here for months.
"It's probably still a place of last resort," she continued. "I'm not being unkind to you to say that, Brad. You're getting there, I think."
There was an uninviting vegetable patch for residents - a thin strip of dirt with a few weedy tomato plants in it. There was a basketball hoop and a volleyball net set up at the back, right beside full rubbish bins buzzing with flies. But the tenants I spoke to were relaxed. "I still feel scared sometimes," said Jenny West, 64. "But Brad's made a big difference. It's a work in progress." Cindy Rihiri, 33, lives in a cabin with her daughter Jahleiss, 11. "We're happy here," said Cindy. "It's safe." Jahleiss said she helped make a communal meal one night: "I done a boil-up."
"Just good people living their life," said Heaven, of the residents at Western Park. I called him the day after we spoke to ask if police had given him a background check on the woman who phoned when I was there.
"Yeah. She failed it," he said. "The police can't go into details but said it's probably not going to go well if I took her in. I don't want to take the risk. I'm trying to make life a bit easier for our people, not harder."
The woman had failed to find a room even in a place of last resort. Heaven said, "She'll have to look elsewhere."