14 Dec 2022

Emergency housing: Human Rights Commission's damning report points to rights breaches

8:33 pm on 14 December 2022
Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt visiting transitional housing.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt visiting transitional housing. Photo: Supplied

The emergency housing system is seriously flawed by three constant human rights breaches, an inquiry has found.

The Human Rights Commission has released damning findings, with much harsher criticisms than the government's separate internal review summarised at Parliament yesterday.

Listing breaches, the Commission's new report said firstly, emergency housing was often not clean, dry, safe, secure or in good repair and therefore failed decency standards. Alongside this, people have been evicted into homelessness.

Secondly, there was a "serious and ongoing breach" by government, after it excluded emergency housing clients from Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) rights and protections.

And the third breach was that the government had failed to put in accountability arrangements, grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, another "serious" wrongdoing, the report said.

At any one time, close to 9000 New Zealanders are living in emergency accommodation (60 percent with whakapapa Māori) and 100,000 people overall are considered homeless.

Earlier this year RNZ revealed the government had feared motels across the country would "exit the market" if the businesses had to meet healthy homes standards, or answer to the Tenancy Tribunal.

So, the government changed the law so motels could circumvent the RTA, and deliberately kept the reasoning quiet to avoid initial public backlash, according to documents released under the Official Information Act.

In private emails, the Ministry of Health and advocacy groups warned the law change could breach human rights, but the government pushed ahead with the law changes anyway.

Referencing RNZ's reporting in its findings, the Human Rights Commission said this law change directly "led to a beach of the right to accountability and access to justice for these individuals, as well as breaching other features of their right to a decent home".

"This situation is also likely to breach Te Tiriti o Waitangi."

The Commission said "the decision was a step backward that regressed the housing rights of many individuals and families".

The government has known about the Commission's findings, and had a copy of them for two weeks.

Ahead of the report's release, the government decided to publicly summarise findings of its own version of a review, an internal review, into the emergency housing system.

The Human Rights Commission then brought the embargo of its own harsher findings forward.

This said housing support had been "inflexible" and communication needed to be better between government departments and housing clients.

The Human Rights Commission offered to help with that review but told RNZ this offer was declined.

The Commission has called its separate inquiry findings "distressing" and "the system has failed those who need the most help".

It said: "Government cannot escape its human rights obligations."

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt meets with residents.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt meets with emergency housing residents. Photo: Supplied

The Commission's report described dozens of heartbreaking stories, including people who had been put into motels without cooking facilities, with holes and vomit and food on the walls, with cockroaches and mouldy curtains, no ventilation and no storage, and broken locks that were not fixed despite repeated requests.

One former resident described "cockroaches crawling across her face" the report said.

Parents said families were housed in single rooms often with parents sharing beds with kids, and the overcrowded and mouldy conditions made children sick.

One resident reported: "My kids get sick nearly every second week. My eldest [child] has been in hospital twice due to our hotel situation and now has asthma."

Children as old as three had only ever known living in a hotel, the report said.

A beneficiary advocate explained that: "Children were asking, will Father Christmas know where to bring our presents? Because they don't know where they'll be living, week to week."

Families had witnessed people in fights, drug dealing, mental health and addiction crises, and suffered sexual harrassment and stalking.

"I was so brutalised by the experience I contemplated suicide," a former client said.

Another said: "Someone was stabbed in my transitional home and I asked for a transfer. It was denied and I was told 'either stay in this house or move out'. Me and my child lived in our car for four-to-six weeks."

And another described how: "Management harassed me and my children daily. They would yell and scream at us, calling us 'rats' and 'Māori who bred like rats and should go back to their hole'."

In some situations emergency housing system clients felt they were being evicted only because they had made complaints about the standards of living, but they said there were "almost never" processes to appeal such evictions.

This caused people to live in "constant fear and stress".

Some needed counselling for what they had witnessed, others said they were made to feel "like a number".

"It felt like living in an incarceration model with CCTV cameras, restricting visiting hours and security manned services. You feel treated like a prisoner in a correctional facility by their security contractor."

The report also described frustrations that motels could "pick and choose who they will offer emergency accommodation to, observing that many moteliers would simply refuse to deal with those who had mental health issues, were pregnant, young, or otherwise needed support".

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Photo: RNZ/ Rebekah Parsons-King

And it said the Ministry of Social Development had "failed to implement adequate standards or processes for assessing safety and quality in emergency accommodation".

The Human Rights Commission recommended the government phase out using commercial accommodation providers lacking wraparound support, and recommended the government restore rights and protections for clients under the Residential Tenancies Act, or an equivalent mechanism stronger than the current drafted Housing Code of Practice.

It also said the government should put transitional housing and emergency housing into one system to stop inconsistencies, and it should have an independant advisory group grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Former clients' reactions

One mother of three, who spent two years living in four different motels, told RNZ the findings "definitely" reflected her experience.

For example, she went without cooking facilities, despite being in a motel room through lockdowns, and she could not afford takeaways for hot meals.

"There wasn't enough room for my kids to sit on the floor and eat their dinner, like there was no table, no cooking facilities. So there were days where the kids just had noodles, like, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, noodles, noodles noodles."

Two of her children shared a bed.

"The conditions were really bad. We had a massive, massive leak in the roof that was leaking, the floor was wet. It led to other health issues. Like my daughter, she's an asthmatic, so her asthma really played up a lot there. Actually our neighbour, her roof actually, like, collapsed."

The mother said she was "stuck in a hard place".

"You either stand up and say something and get kicked out. Or you just grin and bear it and hope it's good around the corner."

Whangārei woman Jessica Kaipo (Ngāpuhi) who found a home this winter, was in emergency housing last year and earlier this year.

She was also uplifted by the Human Rights Commission's advocacy, and she wanted the emergency housing system to prioritise children's needs.

"They [moteliers] weren't letting my baby out to play out on the outside. And I told them 'where to go'. Because my baby needed fresh air. And I want that for all the tamarikis [sic] that go through emergency housing. They have every right to have fresh air."

She said the motel owners she paid "had no respect".

"They were all about the money, they weren't caring properly for the people. There was one motel that [sic] we couldn't even talk to our neighbours. And it a bit like jail, we felt real isolated."

Emergency housing clients have to pay 25 per cent of their net income towards their accommodation.

'Refreshed emergency housing system'

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt was asked on Morning Report this morning, whether he felt the government had tried to 'preempt' the Commission's scathing findings, by putting out its own version of a review.

He said, "the jury is still out".

"This is an MSD [Ministry of Social Development] and HUD [Ministry of Housing and Urban Development] review of what? Of MSD and HUD. So they're reviewing themselves. What's been published yesterday is a media release, and a one side of A4, with 10 action points."

Despite the Commission giving the government a copy of its inquiry findings a fortnight ago, Hunt said he'd asked for the copy of the ministries' internal review and had not been given it.

He was heavily critical of the ministries' version of internal recommendations.

"Action two says, I quote 'update guidance for MSD frontline staff' end of quote. Okay, well, that's fine. I think that should go without saying. I'm not sure that's really an action point. Of course, you have to update guidance."

He continued: "A second action point, number five, I quote, 'set standards for providers, so they meet some minimum expectations' end of quote. Okay, well, that's good, better late than never. One would have thought there were minimum standards already set out but if there aren't, they've had years to do it."

Hunt cited another action point he was dissatisfied by.

"It says this: Increasing supply of appropriate accommodation and wraparound support will be investigated - not done - investigated, in Hamilton and Wellington. In two of our towns or cities. So action six is an investigation. It's only apropos two towns, two cities. This to me, suggests a lack of ambition. I could go on."

Cabinet ministers Carmel Sepuloni and Megan Woods declined requests for interviews.

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