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Commissioner slams homelessness criticism

Ministry of Social Development Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

The Ministry of Social Development’s Bay of Plenty regional commissioner has hit back at criticism about housing and homelessness in Rotorua.

Ministry of Social Development regional commissioner Mike Bryant describes a barrage of criticism reported in the media about issues related to housing and homelessness in the city.

Criticism has ranged from concerns about children living in motels to social issues in areas with emergency accommodation providers.

“Yes, we have 400 whānau that are staying in motels, yes that is far from ideal but for many of them, that’s better than the alternative. For many of them, they’re actually appreciative of that particular opportunity.

“We used to have lots of people staying, unfortunately, in parks and other places, and many people complained about that. Then we had people staying in a night shelter and ... lots of people complained about that.

“Now we’ve got people staying in motels and people are complaining about that.

“I can give you an absolute assurance as the number of social housing needs to increase … we’ll have people complaining about where those social houses are and the effect that has on them as well.

“We have people that complain about everything.”

Making the comments as part of a housing update to a Rotorua Lakes Council meeting on Thursday, Bryant says people shouldn’t judge anything based on what is read in the media as they tended to be “wrong” or “have errors in them”.

“Unfortunately, it does create perceptions that people actually believe and it’s certainly done that in the housing space.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to judge the council and the work that you do based on things that are in the paper because often that paints a picture of quite negative arguments and sort of, unsupportive approaches around many things.

“We are always open to suggestions and want to make a difference. We don’t really enjoy working with negative people.”

He told the council there is a shortage of social housing, with 700 people in Rotorua on the social housing register, and government agencies were trying to increase supply.

“MSD’s involvement in the housing space is really more of a supportive one.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to engage with others so that the supply [of social housing] can be increased.”

He says he has attended numerous meetings with Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick and council chief executive Geoff Williams about “frustration” about the shortage of houses, as well as discussing employment.

Bryant says work is “a true circuit breaker”.

“We need industries and employers that are prepared to give people a chance.

“You get rejection after rejection and after being turned down 50 times I guess it’s possible you stop applying and you start being interested in how you actually survive on a benefit.”

He says an inter-agency taskforce had resulted in 200 motel units for whānau with children and of those, 175 families had been homed.

“About … seven or eight years ago ... the Government decided that every New Zealander should have the right to at least have somewhere safe, warm and dry to stay so they suggested that people should go and talk to Work and Income if they don’t have anywhere to stay.

“We were dealing with benefits and employment at the time, we’re now dealing with the housing register.

“From my staff’s perspective they do find it difficult when people turn up at 5 o’clock on a Friday or late in the afternoon, they have nowhere to stay, they have lots of underlying social issues, they have health issues ... and things that actually need to be done.”

He says the Ministry of Social Development tries to provide those services alongside other government agencies and is be supporting the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development on a housing hub in Rotorua.

“My staff have been dealing with those clients for five or six years, often on their own, often with very little support and often with lots of criticism.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion, I’m sure it’s to do with reporting, but countries all over the world are facing a housing crisis.

“It’s not just a Rotorua or New Zealand issue, it’s actually a worldwide problem.”

MIke wants to create opportunities for people who are “furthest from the labour market”.

“For those groups of New Zealanders who are often referred to as lazy, or uninterested or unable to actually engage … many of them have goals and aspirations about having a better life.

“Many of those people are young people and obviously they’re going to become a very valuable commodity so in some ways we should be thinking of the huge opportunity that group of people actually creates for us.”

He says the MSD spent $13m to boost employment numbers in the Bay of Plenty through training and upskilling, and the Government has just given a further $11m for the region.

“I’d actually like to spend as much of that $11m as possible in Rotorua. We have 3476 people that have been on a benefit in Rotorua, on a working-age benefit, for more than a year.”

He wants to see those people employed and calls on employers to work with the Ministry to that end.

“It’s those employers that … take up the offer the quickest or the most gusto that are likely to get the highest percentage of that particular funding.”

Bryant says in the last financial year, the Ministry has helped 11,500 across the Bay of Plenty into employment.

Of that, 2650 are from Rotorua. The Bay of Plenty target this financial year was 14,000.

Bryant also hit out at claims homeless people had been transported into the city by the MSD.

“I can confirm at no stage have we ever had a bus that’s picked anybody up from anywhere else.

“Most of the time there’s been more people leaving Rotorua to go to other places.

“New Zealand is a democracy, people get to choose where they live, we don’t tell people where they have to go, and if people have connections and other reasons to come to Rotorua, and they justify what those reasons are ... we do the best we can to support them.”

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick says there has been “a lot of misinformation that just starts to spread”.

She did not state what the misinformation was specifically.

Rotorua district councillor Raj Kumar. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

Councillor Raj Kumar says he's concerned about children living in motels as well as the issues expressed by those living near emergency accommodation.

“The people want to know when is this situation going to change.”

Bryant says the situation is going to be "a lot longer than anybody thinks”

He says he's lobbying other government agencies for going “too slow and too low” and wanted to help speed it up. He believed rapid progress on housing had been made in the past three to six months.

Rotorua district councillor Mercia Yates. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

Councillor Mercia Yates says there is a “very small percentage” causing “distraction and bad behaviours across our city” and wanted to “focus on the positive”.

She asked Bryant to “myth bust” whether all people in emergency accommodation were unemployed and on benefits.

Bryant says many were but some weren’t.

A document provided by Bryant to councillors for the meeting showed the number of beneficiaries in Rotorua had risen slightly between 2020 and 2021 by 291 to 8451.

Benefit expenditure in Rotorua in the year ending June 2021, including jobseeker support, sole parent support, the supported living payment and superannuation came to just under $449m.

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