13 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Homeless given motel rooms during lockdown

6:40 am on 13 April 2020

To keep the homeless and vulnerable safe during the lockdown Tiny Deane has just put 200 of them up in some of the flashest rooms they've ever stayed in. But the ex-trucker with a heart of gold has asked for something big in return - cold turkey, and a serious commitment to change.

Tiny Deane: "I'm called Tiny because I'm the smallest one in my family."

Rotorua's Tiny Deane is helping house 200 people through the lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Jordan Bond

The coronavirus pandemic has caused upheaval in the homeless population, but advocates hope it offers radical opportunities for transformation.

Deane and his wife Lynley founded Visions of a Helping Hand, which runs homeless shelters in Rotorua and Taupō, but their shared facilities can't be made into safe bubbles. So for the level 4 lockdown they have had to find accommodation for nearly 200 people in five motels in Taupō and Rotorua.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

The group included a number of people with addictions to smoking, drinking or drugs, who were told quitting was part of the package that's expected of them.

"We've explained what the risks of Covid mean, and how many people are dying overseas - in Italy and America. We've said no more sharing cigarettes and picking up butts - we don't want this happening to you," Deane said.

Security guards have had to be put in place to stop drug dealers and gangs who have tried to access them. And a team of social workers and DHB healthcare providers are providing intense support, and helping with mental health challenges.

To help pass the time they have stacks of board games, and within their bubbles they're playing lots of badminton, chess and monopoly.

Deane said the first few days of lockdown were the roughest, but now the results were starting to show.

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"We're coping really well. It is tough for them, but we've had one-on ones with them with our social workers, and we've laid down the law, and they know their boundaries.

"And the respect that's been given back to us on that has been unbelievable, and seeing them not on drugs, coming down and being clean has been an absolute miracle. They've done amazing."

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File photo of a homeless person's motel room. Photo: RNZ

He said about 85 percent of those with an addiction did manage to stop.

"You're never going to be 100 percent of them, but just minimising it ... and on the outside of this, once we get through, we have bigger plans that extends right to permanent houses for them."

Deane says he purposely sought out the best accommodation he could wrangle, to give a glimpse of a different life.

"It's providing an opportunity to show them what life can be like for them. They're loving it.

"We've just stopped feeding them, because now they can use their own benefits. Some of them didn't have benefits, but we've put them onto benefits. Now they're all showering, we're giving them nice koha shed clothing, they're dressing better and looking better, and exercising.

"We're saying to them 'hey, if you can stay sober and straight as long as this, we want to get you into your own place'... 95 percent have said 'we'd love that'."

The accommodation has been paid for by the Ministry of Housing, as part of a nationwide programme that has provided nearly 1000 motel units for the homeless and vulnerable since lockdown began - 496 of which have been filled.

400 housed in Auckland

In Auckland the Housing First collective has placed more than 400 homeless people into motel units using the Ministry funding. Auckland City Mission is one of the collective's partners.

The mission's chief executive, Chris Farrelly, also hoped the upheaval caused by the pandemic can be used for good.

Volunteers sort food at the City Mission

Auckland City Mission's food bank is helping feed the homeless and those under pressure. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

"Auckland has a very large number of homeless people, and this initiative has given us an opportunity to accelerate this process of housing people ... we see this motel process as a step into permanent housing, not just a temporary thing," Farrelly said.

"Step two is you have to support people in these motels. They're people that require an immense amount of support and expertise, with mental health issues, addiction issues or cognitive behaviour issues, on a daily basis. What we're working on at the moment is food, some form of stability, and healthcare."

That 400 already housed was a great start, but there were many more still homeless, he said.

"It's an amazing piece of work that is quietly going on behind the scenes, with support from the police and DHBs and social workers, but our providers are incredibly stretched."

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Auckland City Mission chief executive Chris Farrelly. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

Many in the homeless community had health problems, and some were anxious about how the virus could affect them, or have had mental health issues exacerbated, Farrelly said.

Some of those used to the social elements of life on the streets had a tough time with the isolation that was asked of them during the lockdown.

"There's a group for who this is what they've been longing for, for a long time, so they're very happy [to have this housing]. Others, it's given an opportunity to start a detox process and are using this as an opportunity to not take drugs or alcohol."

Farrelly said communities may notice a change in the dynamics at nearby motels, and asked that they also looked to the long-term benefits.

"It's a different kind of group that will be in their area... walking round the street getting exercise. We just ask that locals continue to show kindness and understanding to a new group of people they are not used to seeing in such concentration in their neighbourhood.

"This is an incredible initiative that the government is taking in this time. This is a major step for our country, but it's not an overnighter, and we have to show a lot of compassion and care on caring for these people on a pathway to wellness.

"We want all New Zealanders to stand with us and say 'this is our opportunity to end homelessness. When this pandemic is ended, let's find permanent places for these people."

At the beginning of the lockdown period, NZ Drug Foundation deputy executive director of programmes Ben Birks Ang said many people in self-isolation were overdosing or having withdrawal symptoms.

Birks-Ang said staying open about when drugs were used could help prevent an overdose.

Many alcohol and other drug services are still supporting people during the lockdown.

Here is a useful guide on what to do in response to withdrawals or a drug overdose:

NZ Drug Foundation's guide on withdrawal symptoms and what to do during lockdown.

NZ Drug Foundation's guide on withdrawal symptoms and what to do during lockdown. Photo: NZ Drug Foundation

For more help with drug and alcohol addictions:

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