The term "homelessness" conjures up images of people sleeping on park benches and inside shop doorways in our bigger cities. It describes an aspect of our society with which many of us are uncomfortable — partly because it's not the New Zealand with which some of us are familiar, and partly because, as often happens with such issues, advocacy groups have inflated the definition of the problem to such an extent as to make some of the numbers quoted seem ridiculous.
So does New Zealand really have a problem with homelessness? The honest answer is yes — but like many of these issues, there are conflicting narratives around both the cause and the extent of the problem.
According to a study conducted by the Auckland Council the causes include unemployment, failure to reintegrate into society after being in prison, relationship breakdowns, mental illness and alcohol and substance abuse — with the relative weight of each of these differing in other studies.
And though we don't know the precise number of homeless, we do know the hardcore number of those who lack habitable accommodation is probably somewhere between 2000* and 4200** depending on what data you're looking at. We also know that there are another 37,000 people who are described as being in temporary or overcrowded housing.
This larger group aren't technically homeless, but their circumstances aren't ideal in a country which prides itself on its pragmatic approach to looking after its most vulnerable.
So what are we doing about it? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.
A little investigation reveals serious action to address the issue started, in 2016, under the National Government, which took a series of steps to identify, then resolve, homelessness.
These steps included more closely examining the circumstances of those in housing need; moving those who needed assistance to the Social Housing Register; a dramatic increase in the provision of places in transitional housing for individuals and families; and a big jump in emergency housing special needs grants.
The incoming Coalition Government has continued to focus on the issue with a series of initiatives, including its most recent announcement of a decision to spend another (almost) $200 million to house 2700 long term homeless by boosting support for a housing programme called "Housing First".
I confess that I hadn't heard much about this programme — so I did a bit of study to see how our money was being spent — and I have to say that I'm extremely impressed and encouraged. Based on an American initiative, from the 90s, the New Zealand Housing First initiative is comprised of a collective of organisations including Auckland City Mission, Link People, Vision West, Kahui tu Kaha and Lifewise.
Nothing about the programme itself is particularly groundbreaking — it's just good old common sense of the sort often sadly lacking in Government-supported programmes. In a nutshell, the Housing First model focuses on placing people in a permanent home as quickly as possible.
The focus is on client-led recovery, which means those suffering from substance abuse receive the support they need; the kind of support that participants receive is personalised, which means that they're not subjected to a one-size-fits-all approach;and support is provided for as long as it's needed with no time limits.
Early results are encouraging. Since May 2017, 964 people, including 452 children, have been placed in 512 homes. 63 per cent of these placements were for individuals and 37 per cent for families.
The programme also focuses on placing participants in private sector accommodation, where possible — and so far 85 per cent of placements have been in private rentals — another encouraging trend and one which could work equally well if applied to the KiwiBuild programme. At this rate, we can legitimately expect homelessness to be a thing of the past within a few short years.
* Those on the Social Housing Register described as being in "insecure housing" in Sept 2017
** The number of homeless as identified in the 2013 Census
• Ashley Church is the former CEO of the Property Institute of New Zealand and now writes on behalf of OneRoof.co.nz and Herald Homes