31 May 2018

Whanganui emergency housing unhabitable, Salvation Army says

From Checkpoint, 5:47 pm on 31 May 2018

The Salvation Army says conditions at some emergency housing providers in Whanganui are so poor they are putting vulnerable people at risk.

The tenancy manager for emergency housing in the city, Pikihuia Box, says she avoids referring people to Purnell House and to the Bignell Street Motel and Campground because she considers them unsafe.

Built in 1931, Purnell House was originally a boarding hostel for up to 100 boys from the neighbouring Wanganui Technical College - which later became Wanganui City College.

The two-storey neo-Georgian building, which sits on 3.5 hectares of land, closed in 1980 and ownership reverted to the district council before it was sold about 15 years ago. 

Ms Box said the building had seen better days.

"It's a very derelict building to be honest. Very rundown - I don't know whether it's inhabitable, however, it's being used for housing," Ms Box said.

"It's in a terrible state."

Ms Box said she did not send clients there, even in emergencies.

"I haven't yet referred anyone to Purnell House and I wouldn't be inclined to refer anyone to Purnell House.

"I don't think it's very sanitary and I don't think it's a very safe environment for our clients whether they are high complex or not. No, it's not a place I would be referring people to," she said.

Purnell House, Whanganui

Built in 1931, Purnell House was deemed to be unsafe by the tenancy manager for emergency housing in the Whanganui. Photo: RNZ/ Logan Church

Manager Matt Ngapeka, who according to the council is the owner of Purnell House, said the building was in need of some care.

"Purnell House is as you see it... This building has a history that goes back to 1930," Mr Ngapeka said.

"You can see the building's been done in brick and it's been plastered. It's got a bit of wear and tear on the building. It needs another paint job and a bit of a do-up."

Mr Ngapeka said in all his time at Purnell he had never turned anyone away.

"All the people who've been out on the street for the last 15 years that nobody wanted - that's who it's catered for," he said.

"This building has taken every single person in that has been directed to it by government agencies, the hospital, WINZ, mental health. Any person."

Purnell House manager Matt Ngapeka

 Purnell House manager Matt Ngapeka Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

It costs $120 a week to rent a room at Purnell, and Mr Ngapeka said some of the tenants were difficult.

"The latest room that got done was someone through mental health. They hadn't had their medication for four days," he said.

"Well apparently he lost it, so his room got smashed up. Fridges, TVs, beds, everything. Windows got knocked out.

"That sort of stuff we do have to deal with."

Asked whether Purnell House was a safe place to live, Mr Ngapeka was non-committal.

"I would describe it as a place that's sufficient for people to live and when you look out there or you look downtown, it's better than living out on the street. It's better than someone living in their car," he said.

Ms Box said she was equally concerned about the Bignell Street Motel and Campground at Gonville.

"We often use this or have used this for emergency housing. We are still referring people here very reluctantly at the moment," Ms Box said.

"It hasn't been a safe environment. The clients themselves are very reluctant to come here because they are aware of the activities that take place here."

She had removed at least one person from Bignell Street for their own safety.

"I do have a client with me currently at the moment that we have moved from here and she is now in long-term accommodation," she said.

"She was attacked here and spent 11 days with no shower, fearful of going into the shower block and stopped eating out of fear."

The Salvation Army has removed at least one emergency housing client from Bignell Street Motel and Campground out of fear for her safety

The Salvation Army has removed at least one emergency housing client from Bignell Street Motel and Campground out of fear for her safety Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Bignell Street's on-site manager Peter One declined to be interviewed. He invited RNZ to write an email to the owner but there was no reply.

Real estate agent Ross Watson has recently taken over day-to-day management of tenancies at Bignell Street.

Mr Watson said he had been trying to iron out some of the problems Ms Box was worried about.

"The way I view it, if I didn't what I was doing and that is trying to keep it professional, the management side professional, doing tenancies under the Tenancy Act with bonds then you might have some issues I would say," Mr Watson said.

"I'm trying to do the best I can as professionally as I can given the clientele and given the circumstances."

Stuart Thorpe, who had been at Bignell Street for five weeks, said at least it was a roof over his head.

"The house we'd been staying in sold so there was nothing affordable being on the benefit in Auckland where we've just come from, me and my partner," Mr Thorpe said.

"It was too expensive to rent a house in Auckland so we had to come back down to Taumarunui, which didn't work for us either, and we ended up with emergency housing and the only place they could put us was here." 

There were a variety of residents, Mr Thorpe said.

"They're good. There's different races and there's a few with mental health issues obviously. I think they're more the long-term residents of the camp," he said.

"It's probably what they need, is somewhere stable."

He did not have concerns about his safety.

Stuart has been living at Bignell Street for the last five weeks after he could not find anywhere else to live

 Stuart Thorpe has been living at Bignell Street for the last five weeks after he could not find anywhere else to live Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

When asked about the suitability of Purnell House and the Bignell Street campground for mental health out-patients, Whanganui District Health Board provided a one line statement.

Director of area mental health services Jeff Hammond said its multi-disciplinary teams did not support people living in either accommodation provider, but some chose to.

Ministry of Social Development housing deputy chief executive Scott Gallacher said in a statement that Purnell House and Bignell Street were not ideal accommodation.

"We're aware of some issues with Purnell House and Bignell Street Campground and we know they're not ideal accommodation for everyone needing urgent housing help," Mr Gallacher said.

"We don't actively promote them to our clients, nor do we fund them as a provider."

The ministry did help pay for people who chose to live at either location, he said.

"Sometimes a client will opt to stay at either Purnell House or Bignell Street Campground. If the client is comfortable with that or it's a last resort for them and the difference between sleeping rough or in a car, we'll support them with emergency housing costs for those places."

If anyone living at either site had concerns about where they were staying they should get in touch so the ministry would work with them to provide alternative accommodation, he said.

Demand for housing exceeds supply in Whanganui - according to the ministry's latest housing register figures there were 74 outstanding applications for housing in Whanganui.