Clearing the streets of rough sleepers

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 June 2020
Homeless camp in Kuirau Park, Rotorua

Photo: Rotorua Daily Post / Stephen Parker via LDR

In the very thick of the Covid-19 crisis in New Zealand, with the economy in freefall and the health response under the microscope, the New Zealand Herald trumpeted an incongruously positive headline: "Rough sleeping all but eliminated in New Zealand".

It was remarkable about-turn in a country with one of the worst rates of rough sleeping in the developed world.

So, how did we do it? And are the measures New Zealand put in place a permanent solution - or an elaborate, expensive sticking plaster?

In today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to the NZ Herald's social issues reporter Isaac Davison and Aaron Hendry from non-governmental organisation LifeWise about the steps New Zealand took to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens during the worst of the pandemic.

Isaac Davison tells the story of a homeless couple who'd been living with their four year-old daughter in a tent on Waiheke Island.

"They were out of the loop. They came over (for a doctor’s appointment) a day before lockdown to discover there was a pandemic, and they had nowhere to go.

"They managed, quickly, luckily, to get in touch with LifeWise and were placed in a motel that same day. But it gives you a sense of the vulnerability of these people.

"If you felt vulnerable when you were being told to go into lockdown, imagine having nowhere to go."

General vision of homelessness in Auckland central city.

Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

About 41,000 homeless people live in New Zealand, but that number includes people living in precarious circumstances, like bunking down in garages or living out of those cars.

The most visible of that group - those who sleep on the streets or in parks - are known as "rough sleepers".

There are about 4,000 in Aotearoa - though that figure is based on census data from 2013, and almost certainly well below the actual number.

When the country went into level four lockdown on March 25, Isaac Davison says NGOs working with the homeless realised how big a threat the pandemic could be if it infected people in that community.

"Homeless people are more likely to have chronic health conditions, so they are one of the most vulnerable groups  ... more likely to have respiratory conditions, less likely to seek help, not very visible ... so if there were some kind of spread, they would be in a lot of trouble.

"The second issue is their potential role in spreading the virus: it's very hard, when the main public health message is to stay home, when you don't have a home."

Aaron Hendry from NGO LifeWise largely works with young homeless people, and says for many, Covid-19 was an afterthought.

"A lot of us heard about Covid-19 and it was this 'big thing'.

"But when your life is chaos, and you've been living in that chaos for a long time ... it's just another thing.

"For a lot of them, Covid-19 meant all their natural support structures were suddenly not there ... so helping our rangitahi understand how serious Covid-19 was hard when it was something they couldn't see ... they were still in survival mode, just trying to survive."

So what happened? How did New Zealand get thousands of rough sleepers off the streets and into accommodation in a matter of days? And is it a situation that can be sustained?

Listen to full episode of The Detail to find out.