The relationship between housing and recovery from mental illness has been recognised in New Zealand in a number of reports and discussion papers[i]. The Mental Health Commission (1999)[ii] describes this relationship as follows:
“The provision of adequate, affordable and secure housing is critical to recovery, continued well-being and independence—conversely, poor housing can impair a person’s ability to recover from mental illness and function independently.” (1999; p12).
Research to quantify the extent of independent housing need, and homelessness and transience amongst tāngata whaiora, was undertaken by the Ministry of Social Development in April 2000[iii]. Questions of affordability, adequacy and sustainability of housing formed the core of the research.
From the research it was estimated that around 8000 (17 %) of tāngata whaiora using District Health Board (DHBs) mental health services experienced housing difficulties, while the number of literally homeless tāngata whaiora or those living in temporary or emergency accommodation could be as many as 2000 (4%). A further 8000 (17%) tāngata whaiora were estimated to be living in circumstances which may involve a heightened risk of homelessness, such as boarding houses, hostels, hotels, motels, bed and breakfast houses and caravan parks.
More important were the research findings about the nature of the housing difficulties being faced by tāngata whaiora with the principal areas of difficulty relating to:
•cost and affordability of housing
•lack of choice in housing options
•stigma and discrimination
The research concluded that housing difficulties, homelessness and transience were significant problems amongst tāngata whaiora.
Easy Access Housing and tāngata whaiora
It is within this context that Easy Access Housing (EAH) was set up. One of the few services in the country with a sole focus on homeless tāngata whaiora.
Tāngata whaiora are at the very centre of the service that EAH provides. “We’re about empowering tāngata whaiora to support themselves into housing of their own choosing,” says Zap Haenga.
“Our residents know that we have a good understanding of what things can be like for them. Our ability to build positive and empathetic relationships stems in many ways from our own personal experiences of mental illness and/or homelessness.”
Zap lived on the streets for the better part of 18 years and now coordinates the EAH service. He was also a tāngata whaiora representative on the steering group that advised the setup of the project in early 2000.
“I love my work – it gives purpose to many of my own life experiences. Our residents often know that I’ve had similar experiences to them and I’ve found this usually makes it easier to build rapport and trust.”
“Transitioning from long-term rough sleeping takes time and can be incredibly hard to adjust to. For some, it can involve going back on-and-off the streets a number of times which is one of the reasons EAH has an open door return policy for ex-residents who want to give it another go.”
Ex-residents frequently say they value the services they receive at EAH, even when there have been issues that resulted in their eviction. “Our respectful landlord/resident relationships usually remain intact and we often get ex-resident’s approaching us for advice, support or just to have a laugh.”
EAH recently supported a person into permanent accommodation who had been homeless for well over a decade, and, due to his often aggressive communication style, had been trespassed from some key support agencies. Establishing a trusting relationship with him was crucial to his successful transition into permanent accommodation.
“While EAH are not funded to provide follow-on supports we remain available to him and his landlord (Wellington City Housing) to help sustain his tenancy. It hasn’t all been calm waters with this tenant but having a strong relationship with his landlord has definitely helped.”
“It is intensely rewarding to watch as he pursues other passions now that he has stable accommodation. Over the past few months he has engaged in computer training, applied for funding with the local council to hold a BBQ for the homeless, and enrolled with a local art centre,” Zap says.
“It’s good for opportunities. People who get outta prison, on the streets, because people need Easy Access Housing to help them with guidance and support with today’s living,” commented ex-resident of EAH, Wayne.
Service set up
Under the legal umbrella of Atareira Trust, EAH signed a Supported Landlord contract in November 2002 with Capital and Coast District Health Board (C&CDHB). Over 2003 and 2004 five 4-bedroom houses were provided by Wellington City Housing (WCH) and Housing New Zealand. Four of the houses were dedicated to housing homeless men and the other as a women and transgender only house.
In 2013, EAH was asked to return the two WCH houses so they could be refurbished as part of WCH’s housing redevelopment plan and nine, one bedroom and bedsit apartments were provided in the interim. The waitlist has always reflected the oversubscribed nature of this service, especially for male applicants so it was important to be able to sustain the same level of service. Two replacement houses were provided in 2014.
Up until 2016, C&CDHB were the sole funder until additional funding was secured from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) for emergency housing, being provided through two of the houses.
Off-site staff work with residents to help them develop a personalised housing action plan; maintain their connections with clinical and community supports; sustain healthy relationships in the houses; and explore opportunities for personal and professional growth.
EAH doesn’t fall under the Residential Tenancies Act due to the characteristics of the housing provided and the short-term tenancies. Residency agreements are supplied to residents that are similar to those found in a backpackers.
“One of the biggest barriers our residents face is not having a birth certificate or photo ID, which are mandatory requirements to submit applications for housing. When you’ve cycled in and out of the street, mental health services and sometimes prison, this is the sort of thing that gets lost and is too expensive.
Many applicants self-refer to EAH because it’s well known through their social networks. There’s also been an increase in referrals from Corrections and Probation. Other referral sources include Hutt and Wellington hospital psychiatric wards, the Early Intervention Service, The Bridge Programme, Downtown Community Ministries, and Drug Rehabs in other cities.
Trends and challenges
Zap says there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of Māori tāngata whaiora accessing the service over the last year. Five years ago the proportion of Māori residents was around 30% and now it’s 70%.
There have also been significant changes throughout the local mental health and addiction service sector that has impacted on the additional support available to residents while housed with EAH. “Change is never easy, but over the past few years EAH has increasingly found it necessary to do things outside of our service scope in order to fill service gaps. Service provision has become about ticking boxes.”.”
When asked about the Housing First model ZAP says permanent housing is good – that’s what everyone ultimately wants.
“But for our residents, many need a gradual and transitional approach. Where housing application processes are simple, smooth and move at their pace. Where they have adequate support around them that continues beyond their time at EAH.”
“We’re finding it harder and harder to find homes to move people into. The wait lists for social housing is phenomenal. So the emphasis by Wellington City Council to create more affordable homes in Wellington is crucial to addressing the housing crisis we are experiencing.”
And in the future – “We might explore expanding our housing to include transitional/emergency housing for single parents, couples and/or families. But for now we have more than enough to work with.”
Call Zap on 04 499 1049 extension 2.
[i] (Mental Health Commission, 1999; Ministry of Social Development, 2002; Kites Trust, 2002; Fenton, 2004)
[ii] Mental Health Commission (1999) ‘Housing and Mental Health: Reducing Housing Difficulties for People with Mental Illness.’
[iii] Robin Peace, Susan Kell (Ministry of Social Development) Dec 2001; ‘Mental Health and Housing Research: Housing Needs and Sustainable Independent Living’ Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 17 retrieved from https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj17/17_pages101_123.pdf