Eliminating homelessness an 'unreasonable goal' - Auckland Council

8:11 am on 14 November 2023
General vision of homelessness in Auckland central city.

Sleeping bags and cardboard outside shops in central Auckland, in 2020. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

It takes weeks to house rough sleepers, and while eliminating homelessness is an unreasonable goal, Auckland Council is aiming to make it "rare".

Seven years ago, an official headcount showed there were 220 people sleeping rough in the city centre.

But estimates now put that number at 30 people who are homeless, Auckland Council homelessness officer Dickie Humphries says.

Business association Heart of the City wants more police on the beat and tougher laws, including trespassing people for rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour.

But those who work with the homeless say slapping people with fines and trespass notices is not the solution.

Auckland's downtown will be the first glimpse of the city an expected 250,000 cruise passengers will get when their ships arrive this season, but in the past month a large encampment of people sleeping rough and drinking on the harbour-facing Quay Street upset both businesses and residents.

They called on the city council to take action, and Humphries did just that, contacting the police, and three housing and outreach services about the group.

"The numbers would fluctuate based on who was coming into the city and then they see this group of people: 'here's somewhere I can congregate as well and have some alcohol' - and then numbers would increase," Humphries said.

Only about half of the 15 people that regularly gathered at Quay Street were homeless, he said.

"Two went into emergency housing and another six went into the Housing First programme, that was eight, and it did take a concerted effort and it took that building of trust."

Humphries said it took weeks of work to make progress with the group, and now just a few remain.

He said eliminating homelessness is an "unreasonable goal".

"What we aim for is that over time we get to a point where homelessness in the region is a rare thing, that it becomes brief for those who experience it and that it's non-recurring so that people aren't in a cycle of being homeless and getting housing. We're not there yet but it is the direction of travel."

General vision of homelessness in Auckland central city.

Belongings stored in an entranceway in central Auckland, in 2020. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

The New Beginnings Court Te Kooti o Timatanga Hou works with homeless people in Auckland who regularly appear in front of a judge for low level public nuisance offending.

Court coordinator Carmel Claridge said prosecuting people for infringing a bylaw was not the answer.

"The use of the bylaw to further criminalise people who really have next to no resources is a pretty ineffective way to try and instigate or support behavioural change."

She said some rough sleepers racked up debt from breaching the city centre liquor ban that was enforced by police, including one man who owed $9000.

"This is a person who has no [significant] income, he certainly has no savings. He's more likely to win Lotto than ever be able to pay back those fines."

The council's compliance team oversees public nuisance bylaws and its manager Adrian Wilson said it could ask people to move on but could not issue fines.

"You can issue them bylaw notices, which instructs them to stop that activity, but then the only alternative after that is prosecution ... which clearly is a costly exercise and a time consuming exercise."

He said there were 11 compliance officers and six City Watch patrols.

"We go around and do morning wake ups in the morning, where people may be occupying doorways and to encourage them to remove their stuff from the doorway so those businesses can open up in the morning without having to confront the individual themselves."

Humphries said people coming in to the central city from elsewhere were being mistaken for local rough sleepers.

"Our outreach partners, our compliance team, everyone who's had interface with this tell us that there's a cohort of people that travel in from outside of this area to hustle, for want of a better word, and they're not necessarily rough sleepers."

Social services group Lifewise said they had housed 55 rangatahi and 40 street whānau in the city in the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, New Zealand Cruise Association chief executive Jacqui Lloyd said although there had been no complaints about specific incidents, she has had feedback that downtown was not as welcoming for tourists as it once was.

"From what I understand there's a number of people congregating in areas around the terminal, the cruise port, so when people are coming off the ship that's some of the first things they see when they're coming off," she said.

"We haven't had any feedback yet apart from the welcoming nature of Auckland."

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