In the wake of Whanganui's draft housing strategy and concern about Whanganui homeless, Liz Wylie talks to Whanganui Peoples' Centre manager Sharon Semple about what is being done for the city's homeless.
Sharon Semple, her co-worker Hannah Annabell and Tina Hansen of the Out of Gate Programme have been assisting Whanganui's homeless including a pair featured in a recent Chronicle article on housing.
Along with a number of other agencies, the Peoples' Centre has worked with the Whanganui District Council (WDC) to help formulate the draft for a new Housing Strategy which is now open for public submissions.
The purpose of the Housing Strategy is "to support thriving communities, with housing that meets the needs of our district" while the vision is to ensure that "everyone in Whanganui has the right housing opportunities and a great neighbourhood to live in".
Whanganui is experiencing population growth at a rate of around 700 people each year and while this has many positive effects, the growth has also resulted in a scarcity of affordable housing.
Meanwhile, Whanganui social housing provided by central government has decreased from 720 properties to 559 and although Housing New Zealand is building more, that can't happen quickly enough for those who find themselves homeless.
"The council is taking responsibility and working really hard to find solutions," Semple said.
"It will be good if they get some really good submissions from the public and people think about ways they can help rather than levelling blame."
Semple and her colleagues work at the sharp end of housing problems and their support to Whanganui homeless frequently goes above and beyond their working hours and budget.
"Hannah and I go out several nights each week to check on people we know to be homeless and offer support to any new people we encounter.
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"There is good news as 52 people we have identified as homeless or in unsafe accommodation are in better situations now."
Semple recently reached into her own pocket to house a woman who was sleeping on a public toilet floor.
"It was an unsafe situation and we had no way to offer immediate assistance at night time so I did the only thing I could."
The woman is among those who have been assisted into housing and Semple said the aim was to provide wrap-around support.
"Not everyone welcomes our help initially but we keep approaching them anyway," she said.
"Sometimes it is pride that prevents people from accepting help and some people put up barriers because they don't want obligations."
Semple said there was often a complex range of problems like debt, addictions, mental health and adverse tenancy histories that prevent people from accessing housing.
"The good thing about our service is that our funding is not tagged to specific issues so we are able to work with all aspects of a person's situation.
"We ask our clients to sign a confidentiality waiver so that we can talk to their GPs or other health professionals as well as Winz caseworkers."
Whanganui Work and Income New Zealand staff also often go above and beyond to support their clients, Semple said.
"They will make time to see us at the end of the day and arrange bond payments, debt consolidation and food grants for our clients."
Semple said there was a range of things people could do to help homeless people.
Local hairdresser Barber Town provided a good example by offering a free haircut to one of Semple's clients which she said provided a "massive boost to his self-esteem".
"His life has really moved forward since then and something as simple as a haircut, shower and clean clothes can give someone the confidence they need to apply for the assistance they need," she said.
Council's Housing Strategy was initiated by councillor Kate Joblin, and Safer Whanganui (a coalition of agencies and groups working together to promote community safety and chaired by Mayor Hamish McDouall) has worked on the draft.
"It has been moved forward in response to community reaction to refugee settlement in Whanganui," councillor Josh Chandulal-Mackay said.
Whanganui is poised to become home to 100 refugees a year following a government announcement in February that the city would become one of 13 official refugee settlements.
The announcement was followed by a social media backlash about the shortage of housing for the existing population and calls for the council to address the problem.
Although the settlement was not a council decision, Chandulal-Mackay said he understood the resentment.
"It has highlighted the housing shortage in Whanganui and I can understand why people were upset by the announcement."
The Housing Strategy seeks to find ways for the council to work cooperatively with the community to find solutions he says.
"I talk to constituents who say they would like to see council provide affordable housing but at the same time, they don't want rate increases," Chandulal-Mackay said.
"What the council can do [without increasing rates] is to free up land that is suitable for new builds and looking at zoning regulations to make existing buildings available for housing."
Chandulal-Mackay said another way the council was able to assist was through Community Contracts Funding which is targeted to assist with health, safety and wellbeing goals.
The 2019 funding round opens on July 1.
"A woman contacted me about a shelter she hopes to set up in Castlecliff and it is those sort of initiatives that will make a real difference," he said.
"I spoke to a young homeless man on Victoria Ave who is living in his car and discovered that he is on the waiting list for social housing but his immediate need was to get petrol money to go to Auckland and visit his mother."
Semple said the young man was on her radar and has said he does not require her help.
"He is someone we are aware of and it is good to hear that Josh approached him," Semple said.
"When people say they don't want our help, we don't push it but we will keep asking every time we see them."
The Proposed Housing Strategy is now live on the Whanganui District Council Website .