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New solutions needed for the homeless, concludes think-tank

Nov 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Editor's Picks, Featured Article

Artist Barry Thomas  is not proud of his city when vulnerable people are sleeping rough


A THINK-TANK held recently in Wellington identified more housing and social support as the key to ending homelessness.

Local artist and activist Barry Thomas organised the think-tank as a public-input alternative to the Wellington City Council lock-in discussion in May.

He says the current response to homelessness is failing and local and regional governments need different ideas.

“The definition of a city I want to be proud of has got to include its capacity to deliver to its most vulnerable people,” says Mr Thomas.

At the think-tank, the public and service providers were invited to brainstorm alternative, creative and respectful ideas.

About 30 people attended, including representatives from Wellington City Council, the Downtown Community Ministry and Newtown Union.

There has been a rise in the number of people sleeping on the streets of Wellington and in night shelters during the past few years.

“I’m not proud of the city we live in, where we are in a situation where our most vulnerable people are sleeping rough,” says Mr Thomas.

More than 1000 people turn up at the Downtown Community Ministry every year.  While most are financially destitute, there are often the complicating factors of mental health problems and substance abuse.

Kate Amore, a PhD candidate at University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research Programme in Wellington, attended the think-tank.

“People with other vulnerabilities, such as mental health problems, are generally thought to be at higher risk of homelessness,” she says.

The current services for the homeless, such as night shelters and hostels,  save lives, but the consensus of the think-tank is that they can’t solve the long-term problem.

In addition, women can’t stay at the Wellington night shelter and many gay or transgender people do not feel comfortable there.

It emerged at the think-tank that homeless people are not just sleeping rough – the vast majority are hidden from view on friends’ couches and in their garages.

“There are people sleeping in garages who feel that is a step up from where they have been,” says Mr Thomas.

Kate Amore helped to write the Government’s definition of homelessness, which includes being without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.

“The international consensus is that poverty and lack of affordable and appropriate housing is at the core of homelessness,” Ms Amore says. The solution is more accessible, affordable housing, she says.

Demand for housing is outstripping supply in New Zealand, and homeless people don’t often fit the expectations of an ‘ideal tenant’.

“The homeless are likely to be discriminated against in the private rental market,” says Ms Amore.

Of available social housing, much is unsuitable.  “These one-size-fits-all housing estates in impoverished areas have inherent problems, says Mr Thomas.  “And they put people with problems there.  These monolithic housing estates don’t work.”

It also came out at the think-tank that there is a need for a networked support system for vulnerable people once they do get in to decent housing.

“They may not get the support they need to sustain their housing,” says Ms Amore.  “Housing New Zealand Corporation no longer provides support to its tenants.”

Attendees of the think-tank plan to lobby the Government to act on the homelessness issue.  “Raising public awareness is important if housing and social support are to be political priorities,” says Ms Amore.

MAIN PHOTO: Barry Thomas

CATEGORY PHOTO: Willamette Week

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