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July 9, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Housing the homeless

On 30 June 2003, a well-known member of the Wellington community died. He had worked in the public service for 20 years. He had a big growth/tumor on his forehead, and in the years prior to his death spent much of his time living rough in the Town Belt. He was often seen around town carrying a bedroll in a bucket. His death made worldwide headlines. Yet despite his notoriety, not many of the 1000 at homeless man Robert Jones’ funeral could recall a conversation with him. They called him ‘bucket-man’ before he kicked the bucket, dying in the gutter waiting for an ambulance.

At the same time, the Wellington City Council developed and was implementing a homeless strategy in order to obtain and maintain sustainable accommodation for those of the homeless population that were at ‘greatest risk’. Project Margin, a project managed by the Downtown Community Ministry (DCM), was born. Project margin co-ordinator Di Landy says some of Wellington’s street people are a group of people who are homeless because of their behaviour.

“A lot of those guys on the street are housed and have somewhere to go. But they just don’t want to go there and would rather be on the streets than have a roof over their heads. If they’re not on the street they’re probably at someone’s flat – it’s someone’s payday and they’ve all congregated to get bloody pissed up there. They move around and jeopardise other people’s tenancies, and you will find that it is a group that doesn’t have a name and you will think by their behaviour that they are actually homeless, but they’re not homeless. They’re the street people.”

Landy – a spikey-haired, boot wearing, smoking social worker – is responsible for assisting people into housing. In the past six months or so DCM has accommodated more than 40 people into housing, but not all the people they work with are housed. Landy has worked with ‘blanketman’, Ben Hana, our most well known street identity. When advised that Salient was doing a story on homeless people he said, “Why do you want to talk to me for, then. I`m not homeless – I have somewhere to go” – and with that, off he went. Last summer Hana was living in one of the warmest, largest residential facilities in Wellington (with free food and rent) but that’s what happens when you get convicted for smoking dope on the streets. You end up in Rimutaka Prison. He was released in March and is back on the streets.

The extent of street people choosing to live on the streets as a lifestyle choice means that some of them have become barred from night shelters.Taranaki Street’s Night Shelter coordinator Barry McDonald will let in the homeless, but not the street people he knows. “Most of the guys at Cuba Mall have actually been housed, so basically they are not homeless. I won’t take them in. But I don’t know all of them. Blanketman used to pop along here and have a cup of tea and then say to me ‘just ban me’. I think its just a choice thing, he’s happy where he is on the streets.”

Yet homelessness in Wellington is not restricted to the street people. Homelessness is defined by Landy as a “lack of adequate, secure, affordable and suitable housing, which results in rough sleeping, or use of dwellings for people with no fixed address.” There are three different categories: those who are sleeping on the streets, those who are temporarily dossing on couches in friends flats, and those who are in inappropriate accommodation, such as caravans and caves.

Landy arranges housing for these Landy at work people. But she does more than merely facilitate shelter – she works with other social agencies and looks after her clients’ food, furniture, power, budgeting and Work and Income benefits – often concurrently, and across the age spectrum.

“For example today we just housed a 57-year-old man. He just got his rent and bond, went from our WINZ clinic down to the council to sign his [tenancy] agreement, he came back here to get his power on and then we rang the Salvation Army Hope Centre for furniture.”

Housing has clearly been identified as a determinant of health. People with experience of homelessness may have specific health needs and the homeless population itself is heterogeneous, meaning that different health service responses may be varyingly effacious dependent on how well they are targeted to the homeless population. Landy has worked with many of these, mainly mental health consumers. “We find that many of these people don’t have benefits, they are not in touch with their mental health providers and they need medical assistance. I’ve been able to arrange for a lot of these people to get $2 for the doctor and $2 for the chemist every week so they don’t withhold medical attention or their medication – its really fantastic and it removes their fear.”

Some of these people are sourced from the recently upgraded Taranaki Street Night Shelter. This shelter is a 25-bed 14-dormitory hostel that sleeps an average of 22 men each night at a cost of $5.00 a night. This includes a cup of tea, a hot shower and a squizz at morning TV before they leave. Many are regulars.

Graham Anderson was one of them. He was homeless for 16 years, sometimes on the streets, under bridges and anywhere else he could crash and drink. He was into drugs and alcohol. “I lived on the streets at various times. I was housed with DCM. I was on alcohol and drugs, living in bushes and that, night shelters and derelict houses.”

But there was one turning point that got him of the streets. He quit drinking. “I quit cold turkey,” he says. “I was going to go into rehab on 13 January and a friend said ‘So, are you going to drink until the 13th and give up? Why not give up tonight?’ So I did.” Anderson’s conversation has resulted in him working on the other side of the tracks, assisting others to find homes as a DCM employee. He started part-time and has been full time now for the past 11 months. He is keen, and loves assisting the homeless and other DCM clients.

“The street people are more respectful towards me, they know where I have come from so they actually know that I am helping them. I don’t think they’ve got to the point where they are ready to give up alcohol”.

McDonald says these people are happy drinking on the streets: “The nature of who these guys are and what they do, they don’t pay their rent, they just walk into Work and Income and cancel their rent and there’s nothing we an do about it. You think they’d be happy to have a home to go to but they are so used to living on the streets.”

“We had a guy here, he’d been living in a bus shelter for six months and we tried to house him here, but he just wouldn’t stop smoking, he refused to have a shower and he stunk to high heaven – and he didn’t care. I kicked him out. My perception of some of those guys is that they want everything for free and they want it now. But I understand them; I’m no pushover. If they mess me around I kick ‘em out.”

The fact that some ‘homeless people’ actually have somewhere to go annoys the Council, who make attempts to ‘move them on’ particularly during big weekends that draw the crowds, such as the Lord of the Rings premier and All Black tests. Landy has often hidden the street problem by contributing to the blackout craze, when everyone wore black to support the All Blacks.

“What I did do was that I went around and got a whole lot of black rubbish bag ponchos and gave them to the guys – I handed them out around the street population because they [the Council] were moving them on. The shops were black, every one was wearing black.”

But the problem remained. They were on the streets, and eating at the Soup Kitchen [now called the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre], where there is a no questions asked policy, save, “have you got $1.00”? Yes, it’s probably the only place in town you can get a meal for a buck. And even if you don’t have a dollar you can get some free sandwiches.

“One of the things we emphasise is that the food that is given equals the respect that is given,” says Sister Catherine Hannan.

“It’s very important to respect every person that comes in.”

They also sell clothes. They used to give them away but now charge for a reason. “When we gave them away we found them around the street,” Hannan explains, “so we charged 20 cents per garment and people are a bit more careful. It’s not the money, it’s the principle.”

The fact that agencies work together means this city a step ahead of others in dealing with the homeless. “The good thing about the social scene in Wellington is that agencies work together,” Hannan says. “Sometimes the police even direct people and we have directed people to other places.”

Landy notes that Wellington is the only council in New Zealand to actually put something into the homeless population, with wrap-around services through several agencies – such as the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, Housing New Zealand and the People’s Centre; as well as agencies skilled in dealing with mental health consumers and budgeting. “In Auckland all they are doing is cleaning up more. We have to accept people where they’re at. If we’ve got people from under a bridge and they are housed, that is success.”

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