One year after our series The Hidden Homeless, much has changed – and stayed the same. The Bay of Plenty Times last June uncovered how people, even those with jobs and families, were sleeping in garages, cars, tents, holiday parks and sharing homes with other families.
As another winter starts, how are we taking care of children and adults with no place to live? Dawn Picken reports.
Greerton’s Mazz Adams says she loves her new rental home, but is ‘skeptical’ she and her five youngest children will get to stay long.
Housed, homeless. Housed again
Mazz Adams lived in emergency accommodation with her six children last year before finding a new rental home.
She struggled to find housing after her previous rental was sold. Adams says the family lived in a motel for eight weeks, but had to leave in September due to prior bookings made for the AIMS Games sporting tournament.
So for four days, she and her five youngest children lived with Merivale school principal Jan Tinetti. “She opened her home…I felt really humble about that.”
Last October, Mazz got another rental. It’s where the family lives today, near the heart of Greerton village, in a sunny four-bedroom home she calls ”ginormous”. Though she loves and appreciates the house, she’s wary.
“I didn’t unpack everything. I haven’t put things up on the walls. I haven’t done any of that because of the uncertainty of where we’re going to be in six months.”
Home for how long?
It’s been about nine months since Mazz Adams and her children moved into their latest rental home. She’s hoping she won’t have to move again any time soon. “It’s having to uproot the kids. It makes them unstable. They can’t focus… it’s more of an impact on kids than adults even though we have to carry the burden.”
Mazz says if her landlord decides to sell, she and her children will be in the same situation as last year. “You’re really not secure and you’re really not going to be, and that goes for everyone who doesn’t own their own home.”
Tony Makai owns the Silver Birch holiday park in Tauranga and says he gets 5 or 10 calls per day from families looking for a place to live. He says a family of nine recently stayed in a small cabin together for a month while awaiting a home.
Silver Birch Holiday Park owner Tony Makai shows me around his campground off Turret Road. Here, families looking for more permanent homes have found temporary shelter.
He says two families recently left, but today, a woman and her two daughters share a cabin; another two adults and a child share a caravan.
“We had one three weeks ago, a couple and seven kids were with us a month…it was their second time back. They were here last year and got a house. I think the house got sold.”
We step inside a room overlooking an expanse of shimmering blue water. The view outside? Stunning. Conditions inside? Cramped.
There’s a set of two bunk beds, a sofa, kitchen nook, small bathroom and another room just big enough for a queen-sized bed and wardrobe. He says the children were all boys.
“I think the eldest was eleven or twelve…You should’ve seen the joy on the mum’s face when they heard they got a house.”
I spoke by phone with the father, who didn’t want to be named. He told me the family had been on the social housing wait list more than a year when they finally got a five-bedroom home in Tauranga. “We only got out because we prayed continuously to the Lord.”
Tony and his wife, Sharon, took over Silver Birch two years ago after running a campground in Auckland. He says he gets five to 10 calls a day from people looking for a place to live. “We’re getting more homeless than anything else.”
Motels no fix
A report commissioned for the Tauranga homelessness steering committee found from July 2016 to Aug 2016, 21 payments were made from the government’s Emergency Housing Assistance fund to families urgently needing accommodation.
The report said one month of emergency accommodation cost about $18,000. If the trend continued, per annum costs would total $217,000 for Tauranga alone.
Summit Motor Lodge owner Steve Nyberg says the last time homeless families stayed at his motel was a couple months ago. “We don’t see a lot of it, because we’re full most nights with workmen and [sales] reps.”
A man working the front desk at the Fountain Court Motel said one family was living there while awaiting more permanent housing.
Staff at two other Tauranga motels I called said they don’t accommodate long-term stays.
Tauranga mum Kellie Kioa has taken in dozens of homeless families the past several years, even setting up beds in her garage. The mental health support worker and mum of four started charity Te Tawharau o te Ora to help put a roof over people’s heads.
Currently, she says she has no families staying. She had one last June until September, when they moved to Rotorua. “They didn’t go into the garage as they had a small baby so they were given one of my kids’ rooms to use.”
Kioa says she has friends with children, “who are sharing a scummy 3 bedroom looking for a house to rent who will be homeless in the next couple weeks because the landlord is bowling the house down. The house next door to me has been empty since feb/Mar and has had squatters inside.”
Tania Lewis-Rickard, who runs food charity Kai Aroha, says one of her regular diners struggles with a son who’s mentally ill, yet the woman brings homeless people to stay with her in Greerton. “Every week she comes to Kai Aroha, and it’s, ‘How many you got this week?'”
Merivale School’s Jan Tinetti says she often hears of students living in cramped conditions. “We have had kids here two weeks. They came because they moved in with another family, thinking maybe they’d get a house. Then they can’t, and unfortunately that puts the whole family in an overcrowding situation.”
Hunger and Homelessness
Welcome Bay’s Liz Kite has been feeding homeless people two-and-a-half years through an organisation called Under the Stars. The group meets on Cliff Road every Saturday night, serving an average 40 people each time.
Kite is looking to reopen a drop-in centre where people can shower, charge phones, nap and learn about recovering from addiction. She needs more volunteers.
“There are more young people on the streets in their 20s at the moment and also different ages a bit more than usual.” She says it’s hard for people living rough to get help. “They often suffer extreme levels of anxiety which is enhanced by living on the streets and the fear of being beaten up. They have no doors to lock to protect them like us.”
Lewis-Rickard agrees hunger and homelessness in Tauranga remain at crisis levels. She started charity Kai Aroha (food love) at the end of last May. Volunteers feed people each Friday night from Greerton’s Centrepoint op shop car park.
“Our work has grown. The demand for food has grown and we’re getting more elderly and feeding about the same amount of families. We’re getting more streeties and you can see it, by their clothes and bags.”
Kai Aroha volunteers have recently started taking food parcels to people in the CBD who can’t get to Greerton.
“We just box up food in tin foil trays and walk around and give them out.” The group feeds 30 to 60 people each week, including a regular family – a father with six children. “He made the kids come up and say thank you to us.
We try to give them extra food to take home if we have it.”
Lewis-Rickard met with Tauranga City Council members Wednesday evening to discuss a street sleep event in September or October to raise money for and awareness of homelessness and mental health.
Meantime, Kai Aroha will break for two weeks so volunteers can rest and prepare for winter. “They’re been going every Friday night for the whole year and the team don’t like rosters. They’re always there.”
Te Tuinga Whanau support services has increased its stock of emergency shelter, last month adding two more homes, Whare Kaa and Whare Potae. Executive director Tommy Wilson says it brings the number of TTW homes to five.
“A year ago, we took on this challenge and made a bold statement we believe we could turn Tauranga into a homeless-free city by 2020.”
At the time, Te Tuinga had 40 families looking for homes. Today, Wilson says the charity houses 15 families comprised of 19 adults and 39 children. Since opening its first emergency shelter, Whare Tauranga, mid-last year, Wilson says the organisation has transitioned 22 families (comprised of 24 adults and 60 children) into long-term permanent housing.
“There are so many layers of homelessness…the streeties have a whole different set of circumstances than mothers we’re looking after, and we think our efforts can be rewarded and success achieved with mothers with their tamariki rather than streeties.”
Wilson says the organisation is working with the Ministry for Social Development and Te Puni Kokiri (which runs the Maori Housing Network) to secure funding for five more emergency houses, which he expects to finalise within the next four weeks.
Ministry housing deputy chief executive Scott Gallacher says: “Te Tuinga Whanau is currently contracted to manage five properties delivering 15 transitional housing places in the Tauranga area, and we’re currently in discussion with them to take on additional places. We expect to be able to comment further on those discussions in the near future.”
Te Tuinga Whanau’s longer-term goal, according to Wilson, is creating a permanent village with stable rents. “We’re talking to Accessible Properties, government agencies, partnering with iwi inside and outside Tauranga.
We’ve had interest from organisations in Rotorua who want to follow our model. The more we partner and work together, the better result we’re going to get for those who need help the most.” The organisation provides services in tandem with housing such as budget classes and counselling to teach clients to become good tenants.
Wilson says his Greerton-based organisation is within walking distance of 400 Accessible Property (formerly state-owned) homes.
“We see these people for one reason or another all day, every day. We’re right in the heart of homelessness. It’s not in downtown Tauranga, it’s not in the Papamoa Hills, it’s right in Greerton, Gate Pa, Merivale area and that’s kind of cool.”
Jan Tinetti is another local on the front lines of the housing crisis.
The Merivale School principal and Labour party candidate for Tauranga says while the homeless issue might seem slightly improved this year, in fact, she still sees a regular stream of transitioning families.
She says one family with five children living in overcrowded social housing came to see her a few days ago because they’d gotten notice to move out. “We encourage families to come in straight away. It’s not providing a solution but we can help them through the process.”
Tinetti says some of her students go through three or four schools in a year, and one family didn’t enrol their children for four weeks because they had no home. She says homelessness affects not just learning and behaviour, but health, too.
“We are still seeing a number of our children who have school sores – a number of illnesses like that do go along with overcrowding. Those kids are particularly vulnerable, especially with skin, scabies and things like that.”
Last year at this time, the principal says she knew of 12 families who were homeless or on the verge. This year, she counts eight.
“One family is living in a garage. But others have gone into overcrowded situations, relying on the goodness of others…sometimes, they go underground. At the least, they’ve got a living situation and don’t want to be put out.”
She says the school has enrolled 70 new students this year, but its roll has only increased by 10. “I have kids going out the other side.”
Tinetti believes central government must provide more social housing and emergency housing, while local organisations play a role, too.
“We certainly have a long way to go yet. I think we’re starting to have the conversations and staring to come up with local solutions and that’s always good. We’ve got to keep it up, keep looking for how to make it affordable for these families. They’re being put out because of rent increases of a phenomenal amount.”
Trade Me Properties reported Bay of Plenty rents in April rose 12.5 per cent on last year, putting median rent for a typical property at a record $450 per week.
Non-profit organisation Accessible Properties took over ownership of 1138 homes from Housing New Zealand in April. Tauranga general manager Andrew Wilson says the organisation plans to add another 150 homes within six years.
“We’re already starting to plan how to upgrade our portfolio and talking about what we can do in terms of redevelopment in some cases… with the view that implementation will take place in 2018.”
Tauranga’s Homelessness Steering Group has been working the past year to find ways to secure more housing for individuals and families. Chairwoman Steph O’Sullivan says the committee is working with central government to get funding to operate a programme similar to Hamilton’s People’s Project.
“It fits with the Housing First model.” Housing First puts people into homes, then provides support to fix problems that led to homelessness. O’Sullivan says the group has been looking at what other cities have done, has commissioned research, and raised awareness.
“When we started working together, government and national media didn’t believe housing was an issue. We’ve done a lot to raise the profile of Tauranga nationally and to put a proposal together and get support for it. Every group around the table, they’re working every day with vulnerable people in the Bay.”
Lack of reliable and consistent local data, according to a report commissioned for the steering group, makes quantifying the true extent of homelessness an “impossible task.”
The report states the risk of becoming homeless in Tauranga has increased due to factors including a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in home ownership, family breakdown and increased rental costs.
O’Sullivan says, “We think at the moment, if we extrapolate data, there are probably 350 plus individuals and families in the Western Bay [who are homeless].”
Hamilton’s People’s Project staff say the organisation has homed 386 people since August, 2014. Another 532 people received support finding a place themselves. According to the organisation’s figures, 96 per cent of people helped remain housed – 71 per cent in private rental accommodation, the rest in social housing. Housing First is being trialled in Auckland and considered in Wellington.
Peter Humphreys, in his ninth year of managing two Christian night shelters in Hamilton, says the men’s shelter averages 12 to 22 men per night; the women’s, seven. He says the People’s Project hasn’t changed that. “It’s just getting busier with families, and I’m still getting the same amount of calls… quite often I get guys who’ve got accommodation losing it and coming back into the shelter. Unless there’s continuous support, they can’t maintain it.”
Humphreys says Housing First has worked in many parts of the world and can be good for people with issues such as addiction. But he says communities need affordable, available housing for any project to succeed. “Quite often families I work with are last in line to get a rental, and unfortunately there’s not enough government social housing. It’s going to be very difficult if we don’t have the stock.”
Mum and son need a place
Kamira (Kam) Purchase says she’s never been homeless before, but fears she could be without housing in two weeks.
Kam says her landlord has told her the one-bedroom she’s been renting on highway 29 near Windermere for $250 per week will be demolished at the month’s end. She’s on a waiting list for social housing with her 5-year-old son, Raniera.
Purchase has been told the wait could be long, as no homes are available.
She scoured the private rental market three or four months, finding two bedroom homes priced at $430/week.
“Who can afford that? I’ve got to pay power, food, gas for the car and whatever else. I won’t have anything to live off.”
In addition, she says debt in her name linked to an ex-partner is an issue for landlords and rental agencies. “Once they check on credit history, they prefer not to choose me. It makes it harder to get a place.”
Associate Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro says National is committed to building 220 social and transitional houses in the Tauranga area over the next year: 150 social houses for long-term living and 68 transitional houses designed for a 12-week period.
“We will have capacity to help 272 people,” he said, during a visit to Tauranga earlier this month.
Social Housing Minister Amy Adams says across the wider Bay of Plenty, National will provide 146 transitional houses to help more families “These houses are in addition to the 290 social houses we’re planning to secure in the Bay of Plenty.”
Labour Housing Minister Phil Twyford says more state houses need to be built to keep pace with demand.
A cross-party homelessness inquiry launched by Labour, Green and Maori parties found late last year homelessness in New Zealand at the highest levels in recent memory and continuing to grow. The report calls for more state housing stock; more affordable houses; reduced building costs and tackling speculation in the property market.
Salvation Army emergency shelters in the Bay
The Salvation Army had no accommodation available in the Tauranga area – until recently.
Social services manager Davina Plummer says, “We have one new emergency housing unit up and running and a second about to open, and we’re in negotiations hoping to open more in the next few months.”
Plummer says the homes are designed for families to stay up to 12 weeks. During that time, the Salvation Army will work with people to address reasons they’ve become homeless.
“We’re really grateful to people in the Tauranga community that have worked with us to make these houses available to struggling families.”
An opening date for the second house is tentatively set for the end of June or early July. Plummer says clients moved into the first house in early May.