When homelessness was solved – temporarily
“They sold me a dream,” says Robin Buttell. It’s a Thursday morning and Buttell, along with some of his homeless friends, is waiting for the credit union on Tauranga’s main drag to open.
Robin is 54 but the deep creases on his face - evidence of a hard life spent outdoors - make him look older.
He sometimes crashes with friends, but usually he sleeps in parks or on the street.
“I stay here, there anywhere - in a bush - wherever, eh.”
The dream he speaks of was to be put up in a fancy hotel during the COVID crisis, like many of Tauranga’s homeless.
But it never happened. He spent lockdown sleeping rough and in an empty commercial building, except for a week on remand in Waikeria prison when he and some friends were caught stealing a keg from outside a pub.
Robin claims the “po-po” - American slang for police - promised him a place in a hotel but didn’t follow through.
It’s hard to know who was to blame - he was supposed to be registered with the People’s Project in downtown Tauranga before he could be housed - “but I didn’t even know it existed”.
“I was on the phone to get a motel eh, I rung up about eight f…... places. Then they said ‘ring Citizens Advice’. They just palmed me off. These other pr…s all got motels.”
People’s Project service manager Kerry Hawkes says the agency went through its entire database, and worked with other social service providers to identify homeless people and get them support or into motels prior to lockdown.
“We had 48 hours to prepare. We do what we call outreach – that means literally getting out on the streets. Some of the people that need us the most don’t come and see us – we have to go and find them.”
Robin, who suffers from ADHD and has battled drug addictions, is an example of the complex situations social agencies around the country face when it comes to fighting homelessness in the age of COVID-19.
As property prices and rentals have soared, Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty has experienced the second largest number of homeless in New Zealand behind Auckland: an estimated 4000 people living in cars, on couches, in temporary lodging, uninhabitable houses or on the street.
When the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development began placing people in emergency accommodation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March - utilising a $107m Government package for the homeless - it made 317 places available in the region.
But while Robin says he would like to stay in a flash place such as the Quest on Durham - a high-rise normally used by business travellers and tourists but turned over to the homeless during the pandemic, in the next breath he says he sleeps rough by choice because he likes the freedom.
“We’re not used to luxury.” Besides, he says, he’d eventually just get kicked out on the street again.
Tania Lewis-Rickard of Kai Aroha, second from left, says some homeless people turned down the offer of a hotel. Matt Shand/Stuff.
Tania Lewis-Rickard, whose charity, Kai Aroha, feeds Tauranga’s homeless and vulnerable, says that attitude is not uncommon.
“They know they’re going to have all this luxury, and then they’re going to be back out on the street, on the ground - so they choose to just stay out there,” she says.
But Jodie Robertson, project manager of a mayoral taskforce called Kāinga Tupu, aimed at eradicating homelessness in the Western Bay of Plenty, says only a small percentage of rough sleepers choose the lifestyle.
Of the 87 known streeties in Tauranga prior to COVID, she says, only seven are still living rough.
“I think that is really good evidence that people don’t choose to be homeless on the streets.”
Tauranga alone currently has 164 people in emergency accommodation funded by MSD, another 175 placed in motels and supported by various social agencies, and 136 people in transitional housing funded by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
Across the Western Bay, 557 people are on the social housing register, waiting for a permanent home.
The taskforce was formed last year when new mayor Tenby Powell saw a need to connect the many agencies dealing with the homeless problem across the region.
“We have more NGOs looking at this space than any other city in New Zealand,” Powell says.
“Tauranga does seem to work in silos that lack connectivity.”
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell at a bus-stop in downtown Tauranga which is a popular gathering place for the homeless. Dominico Zapata/Stuff.
It was not well-known in Wellington that the city had a homeless problem, Powell says.
“Tauranga’s viewed as affluent - it’s a very ‘blue’ seat,” he says.
“I don’t want to use the term underbelly, but the social issues that we have here are really quite profound, and yet maybe not as visual as they are in other places.
“A blessing of COVID-19 was that the Government now know we have a real issue here.
“We had the taskforce organised pre-COVID-19 ... and what it’s been able to do now is jump-step a whole lot of other things.
“We’ve come out of it with [Housing Minister] Megan Woods really understanding that we have a big issue here.”
Powell says one of the problems is the city’s geography.
“We don’t have land to just go and build a house anywhere,” he says.
“We’ve got to find the right areas to build the right houses, or we’ve got to think creatively - like work with our co-investment partners ... to buy motel blocks ... and remediate them ... to be able to provide great homes for these people, and then [provide] wrap-around services, which is key to the whole thing.”
The COVID crisis provided a catalyst for some of the creative thinking Powell talks about.
Tommy Wilson of Te Tuinga Whanau, which arranged for homeless people to move into the Tauranga RSA. Dominico Zapata/Stuff.
The Tauranga RSA, for example, did a deal with Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust to house homeless people in a motor inn attached to its Greerton headquarters.
It had 24 rooms usually occupied by truckers that were suddenly empty.
“They were broke, they had no money, the pokies and the bar had shut [because of lockdown],” says trust director Tommy Wilson.
“Now all the rooms are booked which is good for them, and great for us.”
RSA president Fred Milligan says the partnership, now extended to October, has been “amazing, the perfect model really, almost God-given.
“The credo of the RSA is people helping people ... welfare. Well this to me was a typical welfare exercise because we had all these poor people who were suffering and we had something we could give them.”
The homeless arrivals have become part of the furniture around the RSA, Fred says, joining in with activities such as indoor bowls and line dancing.
Heavily pregnant Eliza Ruri has been staying there since the early stages of the COVID lockdown. For a year before that, she’d been living in her car at a bush block on the outskirts of Tauranga, after fleeing mental abuse from whānau in Waikato.
She’d wash in a creek and sometimes go a couple of days without eating.
She was rescued from that existence by chance. One day she and a friend got into trouble with police in Tauranga.
“This cop noticed I was pregnant and he says ‘have you got anywhere else to live?’ and I said, ‘no, what you see in my car, that’s pretty much my house’.
“He got a shock and says ‘I’ll make some phone calls’.”
Eliza Ruri went from sleeping in her car to having her own room at the Tauranga RSA's motor lodge. Dominico Zapata/Stuff.
The officer connected her with Te Tuinga Whanau (TTW) and a couple of days later she was given a room at the RSA.
“I’m not walking on eggshells anymore,” Eliza says.
“I’ve got lots of support from TTW, my social worker is awesome. She’s been helping me out with a lot of programmes.”
She’s hoping to be transitioned to a house after October.
“I see my future as having my family back, my kids, getting them into schooling, having a job - I don’t want to be on the benefit all my life - and just doing good in life. It’s slowly happening.”
Tommy says his trust doubled its capacity during the pandemic and now looks after close to 200 families at four motels and 30 houses.
“[COVID] was lifting up the carpet, because everyone had to address the homeless - they all had to go somewhere, whereas before, they were still hiding in the weeds, sort of thing.
“For us [COVID] has been a perfect storm, because we’ve worked out a recipe, eh. And the recipe is, you’ve got to keep them all in one place, because it’s keeping the bad influence out, as much as keeping the good people in.”
But Tommy has concerns about what will become of homeless people supported during the lockdown by other agencies.
“There was a bit of a lolly scramble ... and the Government put out contracts for street people. Where did all the money go to? And where are those people now? I know where they are - they’re back on the streets.”
Things will only get worse as the economic impacts of COVID bite, he says.
“We’re going to end up with about a family a day [coming to us]. Where do they go?”
“What I’d like to open is a homeless gated village. Once you’ve got them there, they look after each other, they fix each other bro.
“Put a garden and a kohanga in there and some really good social surgery.
“Let’s do that rather than pumping millions into temporarily cutting and pasting street beggars and homeless people and chucking them back out on the street again.”
Mayor Powell says that’s not the answer, as it would only create ghettos and enclaves. It’s best for homeless people to be interspersed throughout a city, he says.
“You’ve got to have bus routes, you’ve got to be close to amenities, you’ve got to have social services that are available.”
Jodie, the mayoral taskforce manager, says it would be better to think of the homeless and vulnerable when new developments are created.
“The last thing we want is to create villages where you effectively end up creating lower socio-economic status groupings all in one spot, which leads to some not so healthy blending of social issues.”
She and Powell admit that ending homelessness is more aspirational than necessarily achievable.
“We want to make it brief and not recurring,” Jodie says.
“Whether or not homelessness will be gone forever, I’m not sure. I think there will always be vulnerable families who are needing support to find a home. What we want to see is that it's a temporary issue for them and they can move on into independent living.”
For people like Robin, living in a home remains little more than a dream.
He describes life on the street during the COVID lockdown as like a zombie movie.
“I was walking around town all during level four, eh. Po-po didn’t even touch us. It was like Resident Evil that movie - everything was dead, no-one was around eh, no cars.”
He reveals that he and some friends managed to get into an abandoned commercial building in the CBD.
“The po-po knew we were there, eh. They trespassed everyone when it went down to level one - hidden agendas, eh. It was alright during COVID - now it’s ‘back on the street you pieces of s...’.”
Robin says he was tested twice for COVID, and went through “decontamination” when he arrived at Waikeria prison when he was caught stealing the keg.
(Corrections says newly arrived prisoners were kept separate from other inmates for 14 days and were screened for signs of COVID-19, during which they wore PPE gear as a precaution.)
Robin's friend, Paris Thompson, who was remanded to Waikeria for the keg theft, says when they were released they were sent to Hamilton as it was the only place with available accommodation.
But social agencies there sent them back to Tauranga, where they ended up back on the street.
Corrections insists it worked with other agencies during the lockdown to ensure people had somewhere to go on their release.
Like Robin, Paris says he would like to be put up in a hotel. But he’s skeptical of the Government’s motivation, and suspects he’d end up back on the street anyway.
“The homeless got a house because of the COVID, not because they’re homeless, that’s what we all say.”