Politicians are being urged to stop "bashing" those living in emergency accommodation, and start including them in their discussions for solutions.
A public meeting to discuss safety in Wellington took place in the CBD last night, organised by National MP Nicola Willis.
Gang presence, along with higher numbers of people living in emergency housing, was cited as a source of public safety concern.
"I have had numerous people reach out to me to share their quite frankly harrowing stories of the experiences they have had," Willis told the audience.
Around 150 people turned up to the public meeting at Naumi Hotel on Cuba Street.
Willis said fears over public safety were not just based on anecdotes.
"Police data shows that victimisations in Wellington City are up around fifty percent in just the past four years alone," Willis said.
"My view is it's got even worse in the past nine months.
"We also know for a fact, based on police data from their national register, that gang membership has doubled in Wellington City for the past four years."
These numbers have been disputed, however. One expert has argued the figures are not a true reflection of reality and there are problems with how the numbers are collected.
'Massive' changes to Wellington
Mayor Andy Foster agreed rising gang membership and the numbers in emergency housing accounted for two "massive" changes in the city.
The numbers in such accommodation had more than tripled, while the length of time people stay has increased roughly three-fold, Foster said.
Reports have shown emergency accommodation is often occupied by those with complicated mental health and addiction issues. A government minister has described it as[https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/441256/inhumane-conditions-green-party-minister-condemns-some-emergency-housing
"inhumane"], with criminal activity and intimidation rife.
There have been calls to increase the level of support for those in such accommodation, which Foster echoed.
"We also know is when we ask those questions around what level of support there is, the initial response is, 'we didn't really think about that,'" Foster said.
"What we need is wraparound support for people who often come with complicated needs."
'We've got to stop bashing'
Foster argued the blame did not lie with the residents but with management of the facilities.
There were calls to increase police numbers and active surveillance of CCTV cameras.
But there was criticism of the tone of some of the conversation, and it was argued those at the heart of the issue were not being included in finding the solutions.
"We know a lot of those people personally because of the complexities that they face in life," said Ali Hamlin-Paenga, chief executive of Kahungunu Whānau Services, the only Wellington-based kaupapa Māori provider.
"Yes, there is a housing shortage. But I would also like to ask the MPs that are here today, what would you do? Because we've got to stop bashing, and actually work together."
She said voices such as hers had not been included.
"The council needs to have us at the table more. I can tell you, we have a partnership agreement with the Lower Hutt City Council, but we sit in Victoria Street, Wellington."
"I'm here to talk to anybody that actually wants to support people to achieve their aspirations, not lock them up."
Both Willis and Foster promised to meet with her, while her calls for more responsibility were echoed by the manager of youth creative arts organisation Zeal, Britney Marsh.
"They have their own answers to their own problems. Nine times out of ten, they need us to get out of the way, and let them work it out themselves, and empower them, and resource them, and listen to them."
Willis agreed part of the solution lay with such groups, but that deterrence would also have a part to play.
"There is also always a place for punishing those who traumatise others, who destroy the lives of other people, who kill, murder, rape.
"Those things must be treated with the force of the law, and I won't apologise for that."
The Wellington City Mission says a stark wealth divide is behind increasing levels of violence in the city and rejects the theory it is fuelled by an explosion in emergency housing.
City Missioner Murray Edridge said it is too easy to blame factors such as community housing for making the city more unsafe and there are a group of people who are struggling, a situation which Covid-19 has made worse.
"Let's get to the root of why this is happening, why are these people on the streets of Wellington, what are they struggling with and how might we respond to the needs that they have?"
He said there is a wealth divide in society with some doing increasingly well and those who were struggling anyway, are struggling more post Covid-19.
Edridge said society needs to respond to underlying issues such as housing, addiction problems and mental health issues in a responsible way.
"I've heard people say that emergency housing is the cause of this, I don't believe that for one moment - I'm not saying emergency housing is acceptable and I think more support needs to be put around those services - but actually I think there's some deeper causes we need to look at."
Willis promised to raise several issues with the government, particularly on policing numbers and support mechanisms for those in emergency accommodation.
Inner City Wellington, a residents association, said a number of community-led safety initiatives should be resumed.
Foster said he would look into stepping up surveillance of live CCTV footage.
Hospitality operator Matt McLaughlin raised a number of things the sector had been doing to improve safety in their venues, including a code of conduct for patrons and operators.
Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson said he was unable to attend the meeting due to previous commitments. In a statement he said the government was working to ensure those living in the central city had the support they needed.