Broken Landscape of Housing Hits Vulnerable the Hardest

“Emergency housing is not housing. It’s shelter,” says Taone O’Regan, operations manager for Housing First Aro Mai, part of Wellington’s DCM (Downtown Community Ministry). “It’s not safe or secure, and it takes so much effort to live in emergency housing,” she says citing the hoops people have to jump through to secure it. Prior to the pandemic response, those living in emergency housing had to obtain a supplier-provided quote for accommodation and get it approved week by week. Currently, it’s every three weeks.

While that has been one benefit of boosted funding and learnings from pandemic response, other issues magnified. “A trend that emerged since COVID-19 is the increasing number of people previously not homeless filling up emergency and transitional housing.” Taone says that that’s forcing those with multiple and complex needs into emergency housing.

“The most vulnerable are being squeezed out of any hope of permanent housing and even shelter.”

To be eligible for permanent and transitional housing people have to be on the government’s social housing register. To get on the register, they have to be assessed and ranked. Only those achieving the highest rankings are offered properties as they become available. The ranking incorporates a ‘need score’ out of 20 (20 being the highest need) and a priority category (A for the highest priority). Aro Mai, like other organisations working with people who are homeless, maintain the system has restrictions

“The social housing register is simply not working,” says Taone. “We’ve got people that we’re supporting who achieve a ranking of 19A, even 20A, who are never offered a house. To a housing provider that high ranking makes them look like trouble. They’re never going to be offered a house – that’s even though we’re working with them.”

Primarily, Aro Mai works with those most in need, including those with histories of mental and physical health challenges, addictions and criminal justice backgrounds. As a housing first entity, the end goal of Taone’s team is to end homelessness, not manage it. Their approach is to get people into permanent living arrangements first, then support them with services to address the reason why they were experiencing insecure housing.

Taone acknowledges that the use of motel and hotels during COVID-19 level four was a step on the pathway of moving rough sleepers and people who were homeless towards permanent housing. But she maintains that such accommodation is the housing option of last resort.

“The rooms are too small. They’re not set up for living in 24-7. There’s nowhere for people to store their belongings. Usually there’s just a kettle and a microwave. Even giving a food parcel is problematic as there’s nowhere to put the food.”

As at the end of December, Aro Mai had 105 people on their books and 42 needing housing. Taone has one procurement specialist looking for properties. She says ideally she should have two “But there’s no point – there’s so few houses.”

The lack of properties also means that charities and government agencies all end up vying for the same properties.

Despite emergency housing being far from preferable, the scarcity of properties means that such accommodation will necessarily continue for the foreseeable future.

“Our staff make it work,” she says, “they respond to MSD grants and applications, they ensure that the hoteliers are paid. Many people with multiple and complex needs require an advocate to help them live successfully in emergency housing. That’s become a significant part of the work of my team.”

Taone still believes that the government could do more in the interim. “MSD, or maybe the local DHB, should be funding a transitional housing model that accommodates a higher level of support for renters with multiple and complex needs. We need more staff to support these ones.”

Keeping on keeping on seems daunting in the face of the challenges. For Taone two things help keep the fires stoked. “Seeing the bigger picture. And seeing the generosity of others. There are people out there who have a genuine intent to improve the lives of others – including people within MSD and MHUD.”

An example she gives is Maurice and Kaye Clark who are significant funders and facilitators of a 75-property social housing development in Frederick Street, Te Aro. It’s a project that also attracted $10 million in government funding as a post-COVID lockdown shovel-ready project. “That generosity will outlive us.”

Other acts of generosity encourage Taone. In one instance, a family purchased a house for Aro Mai to home people. “It was something they wanted to do because a family member once benefited from DCM services.”

Such encouragements fuel the hope for Housing First Aro Mai and its collaboration partners as they continue to exhaust every avenue in seeking to end homelessness in Wellington.

About Housing First Aro Mai

Housing First Aro Mai is based at DCM formerly the Downtown Community Ministry in Wellington and Takiri Mai te Ata Whanau Ora in the Hutt. Aro Mai is actually a collaboration that includes Wellington City Mission, Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust and Emerge Aotearoa.

Aro Mai doesn’t serve ‘clients’ but ‘taumai’ – the settled. “That’s not just about being settled in a home, says Taone. “It also encompasses being settled, for example, in their mental health, finding a place of peace with their addictions. It’s all about the journey.”

Under the Housing First ethos, Taone and her team stay with taumai for the journey to their settled place. However long that is. The fruits of journeying for the long haul is seen in the number of taumai who end up becoming peer workers. Those who have lived the experienced of homelessness have such a wealth to bring to lifting up others. “Having lived it they have so much more to offer those in the circumstances they once found themselves.”