In our experience, people don’t choose to be homeless

Until recently, most of us probably thought of homeless people as those living on the streets. While this situation still exists, the number of people sleeping rough on a regular basis is relatively small.

The fact is, there are different forms of homelessness.

Chronically homeless

Housing First is for chronically homeless people with multiple and complex needs. We estimate the number of long-term, chronically homeless people, who have spent more than a year on the streets, is as little as five per cent of the total homeless population in New Zealand.

Auckland City Mission’s 2016 annual street count of rough sleepers within three kilometres of the Sky Tower, found 177 and a further 51 in emergency accommodation or hospital who would otherwise have been on the street. This was an annual increase of over 50 per cent. But outside of the city centre, we don’t know how many people are sleeping rough or are chronically homeless across Auckland.

At the end of September 2017, there were 3,153 people in Auckland on the Social Housing Register. However, there are many people who are not on this register and we know the problem is much bigger than this. Our work will help government, the Council and the wider Auckland community better understand the extent of chronic homeless in Auckland, so that we can all continue working together to end it.

In 2018, we intend to do the first Point in Time count of homelessness right across Auckland city. Planning for this is currently underway.

Episodically homeless

People who are episodically homeless account for 10-15 per cent of the homeless population. Housing First also works very well for people who are episodically homeless. Addiction, mental health issues, trauma and debt have emerged as significant issues for many of the people we work with. A mounting debt situation means that rent goes unpaid and is shortly followed by eviction.

Those with long-term addictions require significant support from wrap-around drug and alcohol services. Many also carry a significant debt burden as a result of poor financial skills and typically rely on a benefit as a primary source of income. 

Transitionally homeless

The transitionally homeless make up a staggering 80 per cent of the homeless population. Redundancy, relationship or family breakdowns and health issues are just some of the reasons why people in this group become homeless – if only for a short period of time. Families dominate this group and, for some, this could be their first encounter with social services. For this group of people, rapid rehousing should be the priority. 

What are our definitions of homelessness and ending homelessness?

Housing First Auckland adopts the Statistics New Zealand definition of homelessness.

“Living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing are: without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing.”

For some people, homelessness means sleeping rough on the street or living in cars. For others, it could involve couch-surfing or house-jumping with friends or acquaintances.

What is our definition of ending homelessness? 

Housing First Auckland adopts the Western Massachusetts Network’s definition of what it means to end homelessness:

“Homelessness in Auckland will end when it becomes “rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Urban myths about homelessness. Separating fact from fiction

There are some big myths out there, all of which, we can put right.

  • Don’t people choose to be homeless?

We have not yet met any homeless people who truly wanted to live on the street. Living on the street is dangerous. Homeless people are often abused and attacked, discriminated against and alienated. They are often sleep-deprived, under-nourished and unwell. It’s cold, dirty and humiliating living on the street. Many are there because they simply cannot see another way of dealing with things. Every one of the homeless people we work with wants a home. Most also want to work.

  • Don’t people need an address to get a benefit?

Every person correctly registered with Work and Income can receive a benefit. Part of the Housing First approach is making sure everyone is receiving their entitlement. That said, many are living on less than $100 a week. Many have overwhelming debts and fines.

  • Aren’t all beggars homeless?

Worldwide it is recognised that the majority of beggars are not homeless. The public needs to know that when people are begging and saying they’re homeless, that’s not necessarily accurate.

  • Homelessness can’t be fixed, can it?

There are communities worldwide who are close to ending homelessness. They have done this by adopting the Housing First Model and focusing on ending homelessness rather than managing it. They have done this by collaborating across communities and co-ordination of mostly existing community resources. Worldwide, developing a stock of safe, affordable housing has been key to success.