8 Apr 2021

Hotel management school opens student accommodation to the homeless

11:46 am on 8 April 2021

A Taranaki hospitality school says opening up its student accommodation to homeless people was a no brainer.

The Pacific International Hotel Management School in New Plymouth

The Pacific International Hotel Management School is housing 50 people for the Ministry of Social Development. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The Pacific International Hotel Management School is housing about 50 people - including children - in what it describes as a win-win situation for both it and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).

But New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom said it was an indictment on the lack of government investment in social housing in the city.

International students usually make up the majority of the student body at the hotel management school and it has onsite accommodation for about 150 people.

But with the borders closed the tertiary education provider - which announced it would be making up to 25 staff redundant in October last year - has empty rooms.

Chief executive Bill McCallum said MSD approached it about accommodating people on the emergency housing register.

"Sixty or 70 percent of our students came from international, so we have surplus amount of accommodation of about 80 rooms.

"MSD have contacted us and said 'have you any rooms we could use for emergency housing?' and I said 'yes, happy to help out if we can'."

MSD was paying for the rooms, but the deal was not crucial to the school staying open because it had about 200 domestic students, McCallum said.

The MSD clients were housed in a block largely separate from the school so the students, who had been kept informed about the development, barely noticed them, he said.

"We told them it was emergency housing and we wouldn't like to make judgements about the people who are there.

"But they're not visible. They're not visible. The student body or the staff would hardly ever seen these people. We have one staff member who interacts with them and that's all."

There are currently 386 people on the Social Housing Register in New Plymouth, up from just 33 five years ago.

MSD turned down an interview with RNZ, but in a statement Taranaki King Country Whanganui regional commissioner Gloria Campbell said she was grateful for the school's help.

"The Pacific International Hotel Management School is one of a number of emergency accommodation providers we use in the region and we've been placing clients there since reaching agreement with the owner late last year.

"The block currently houses 55 people including children. Cooking facilities are provided and the units are serviced regularly."

It was important that people in need had somewhere to go, Campbell said.

"There is a housing demand and while people work to find more permanent solutions, this large facility and its owners are helping out.

"We know they are safe and secure units. It's working well for the people who are there. We are grateful for the opportunities to use these facilities and think it's important that as a community we work together to find solutions to support people."

But Holdom said tertiary institutions should not be housing the homeless.

Neil Holdom.

New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"There's been been a chronic lack of investment in public housing stock from the government over the past decades.

"My understanding is ... I've been in this job about four years and I think Housing New Zealand has built maybe eight houses (in New Plymouth over that time)."

The government had committed build about 195 social houses in the district, but that would not be nearly enough, Holdom said.

"We know there are people living in cars. We know there are people sleeping on the streets. This is not something we are used to in Taranaki.

"And we know that people in Taranaki are not going on Housing New Zealand waiting lists because they know there is no stock and they simply won't get a house."

The council would not, however, be adding to its own social housing stock - 150 units for the elderly.

Holdom said ratepayers did not want to subsidise public housing, which was a central government responsibility.

Meanwhile, McCallum said the rooms at hotel management school would remain available to MSD until at least the end of the year and possibly beyond.

"As far as I'm concerned, yes, look it's a win win for both organisations. At least these hapless people are able to get somewhere to put their head down and look after themselves for a period and I'm quite happy to be of assistance in that way."

MSD could not provide data on the use of student accommodation as emergency housing elsewhere in New Zealand, but said it was not widespread.