How to address the homeless

A new study will for the first time quantify homelessness in New Zealand. It comes at a time of surging demand for the Dunedin Night Shelter but takes a broad view of what constitutes homelessness. Some say its findings are sobering and troubling. Others call the definition a nonsense. Bruce Munro investigates.

New Zealand's homelessness is hidden.

It is crammed into lounges strewn with mattresses; veiled behind mouldy, broken walls; and blurred by a haze of addiction and mental illness.

When David (last name withheld) arrived in Dunedin in February, he slept beneath bushes in front of All Saints Church in North Dunedin - one of up to a dozen Christchurch rough-sleepers who have chosen the quiet life in Dunedin in recent months. A few days later, he shifted to shrubs in the town belt.

But David now lives in a boarding house in the suburb of Mornington. So he is not homeless any more. Or is he?

Jane (not her real name) pays rent for a Dunedin house which others think is in such a poor state of repair it should be demolished. The property owner, however, says while Jane is still paying the rent, the house stays put.

Dee and Ray (last names withheld) lived for several months in a camping ground south of Dunedin. It was a step up from rough sleeping, but it certainly was not the ''roof over my head'' for which they both longed.

Could it be that David, Jane, Dee, Ray and the tens of thousands of other people in New Zealand on low incomes or benefits, whose only alternative to living on the streets is overcrowded or poor housing, should be viewed as homeless?

That is one probable conclusion of a yet-to-be released, ground-breaking study on homelessness in New Zealand.

The study, led by Wellington-based University of Otago researcher Dr Kate Amore, is the first attempt to quantify homelessness in this country. It uses a controversial definition of homelessness that proponents say exposes the true nature of the problem in New Zealand and opponents say denigrates many ordinary New Zealanders.

Dr Amore and her team spent more than four years developing a robust method for determining homelessness or, as they term it, ''severe housing deprivation''. That method has been applied to 2001 and 2006 Census data and emergency housing figures to calculate the number of homeless people in New Zealand.

Past estimates of homelessness in this country have ranged from 8000 to 20,000. But Dr Amore said all previous estimates were ''totally made up''.

She said she could not divulge the results until they were released by Statistics New Zealand (StatsNZ) but she says they are ''sobering'' but ''absolutely to be expected''.

''It aligns well with what we already know from poverty statistics; what we know from other living standard statistics,'' Dr Amore said.

''So it's not surprising what we have found.''

The study's definition of homelessness is much broader than the stereotype of a drunk old man sleeping in a shop doorway. It is, however, similar in most respects to the Statistics New Zealand definition of homelessness published in 2009. By that definition a person is homeless if they do not have ''options to acquire safe and secure private accommodation''.

The research team applied filters to the data so they would, for example, capture the family living in a camping ground who had nowhere else to live, but exclude the family in the caravan next door who happened to be on holiday on census night. Low incomes and having no other address were key filters, Dr Amore said.

The four categories within the StatsNZ definition of homelessness are: without shelter, temporary accommodation, uninhabitable housing and sharing accommodation.

Ray and Dee typify what appears to be a growing number of people who move fluidly between the ''without shelter'' and ''temporary accommodation'' spaces that stretch from bushes and bridges to motor camps, night shelters and boarding houses.

Dee had been sleeping in a car just prior to spending a few nights this month at the Dunedin Night Shelter with her husband Ray, who had been living in a boarding house.

As a young woman, Dee spent time in state mental health care and, for a time, slept under Auckland's Grafton Bridge. Ray's background includes gangs, sleeping rough, alcohol and other drugs. They have lived together several times but have found living together does not work for long.

Dee was ''rapt'' to find a small Dunedin City Council flat to move into when her allotted three nights at the shelter expired.

Ray was less happy, because he was likely to move back to the boarding house he left.

''He doesn't like it because there's a guy there cutting himself,'' Dee explains.

''All I've wanted is a bit of stability in life,'' Ray says.

''But you always end up with places other people don't want.

''Homelessness isn't nice. I wouldn't wish it on anybody.''

They are among what night shelter chairman the Rev Dave Brown says are ''sky-rocketing'' numbers of clients.

A year ago, the Lees St shelter was averaging 40 to 50 bed nights per month. For the past couple of months it has been more than 100.

Each client's situation is different but an increasing number are turning up with more complex needs, Mr Brown says.

This picture of increasingly troubled clients with needs that often include addiction or mental health issues is echoed by night shelter staff throughout New Zealand.

In Otago, people without shelter or living in temporary housing appear to make up a sizeable chunk of the region's homeless population. The other is people who fall within the ''uninhabitable housing'' category.

It covers buildings which are dilapidated to the point of being ''uninhabitable by current social norms'', the homelessness definition states.

Signs a house is uninhabitable might include overgrown surroundings, extensive exterior deterioration, a leaking roof, broken doors or windows, a lack of essential services, and a bare, deteriorating interior.

How many Otago houses fit this description is unknown. But they will almost invariably be rentals occupied by low-income or beneficiary tenants.

The best guess on numbers comes from the Rev Dennis Povey, who wrote the 2004 ''Cold, Old and Costly'' report on low-income, private rental housing in Dunedin.

Up to 7% of the houses his team surveyed would have been considered uninhabitable, he told the Otago Daily Times this week.

Mr Povey wants to conduct a follow-up study later this year. He hopes to find the situation has improved.

''But people are warning me against that optimism,'' Mr Povey said.

Extrapolating from the Dunedin City Council's 2012 housing needs assessment finding that 1063 low-income households in private rentals face ''severe housing stress'', it could mean 74 Dunedin households are living in dwellings considered uninhabitable.

People in those predicaments are understandably reluctant to discuss it openly.

Does the St Kilda property Cheryle (last name withheld) rents fit the criteria of uninhabitable housing? Probably not. But it is, by many measures, on the cusp. And Cheryle is happy to talk about her circumstances if they highlight the housing struggles those on low incomes face.

The villa's cardboard-patched side door opens directly to a small threadbare living room. Cheryle sits with her back to an unlit woodburner. She faces a heater, a duvet inner pulled up over her lap.

The uninsulated house is warm enough in summer but in winter it is cold and damp, she says.

There is a plan to fix the house up but that is taking a while.

She would like to use the woodburner but with more than 70% of her welfare benefit going on rent, the cost of cleaning the flue is prohibitive.

The water and power are on, but not the phone. It is an avoidable cost.

So too are socialising and doctor's visits.

She has not been to the movies in about eight years.

''I probably should go to the doctor more often because I have asthma,'' Cheryle says.

''I use the inhaler three or four times a day depending on the weather.''

She has no loans or other debts. But raising three children on a caregiver's income allowed her to ''just keep up the bills'' and no more. Renting anything better, let alone buying a house, has not been an option.

Now on a benefit, money is even tighter. But Cheryle is canny. You can buy a big bag of pigs' feet for $4 and they have ''quite a lot of pork on them'', she says.

The final homelessness category is shared accommodation. And for New Zealand this is a big one.

While it may not be a huge problem in Otago, according to Dr Amore's research, a large portion of New Zealand's hidden homelessness resides in overcrowded houses.

''A big group that we have found are people sharing with others. And we only looked at severely crowded houses,'' Dr Amore said.

''They are staying with others, but they still can't access any housing of their own.''

Dr Amore declined to quantify the extent of severe overcrowding but said the level was ''troubling''.

''It's just so high,'' she said.

''And the main thing driving crowding is that there's not enough housing people can afford.''

She believes it is New Zealanders' kindness that is masking the issue of homelessness.

''In New Zealand, because we are a really generous bunch, if someone is in need we will take them in to our house.

''That's maybe why we don't see so many people sleeping on the streets.''

Housing Minister Nick Smith does not accept a broad definition of homelessness.

''Some of that work is fraught with difficulty,'' Dr Smith said.

Some reports labelled housing as inadequate if more than two children slept in a bedroom, he said.

''I had a wonderful childhood. The best part of it was sharing a bedroom with two brothers,'' he said.

''To define that as unacceptable housing, and thus that I moved within the definition of homeless ... in my view I think is a nonsense.''

Debating the issue of poor quality housing was not helped by describing the people living in those houses as homeless, he added.

''I'm not saying there isn't an issue around the quality of housing. But I'm saying let's call it what it is, rather than dressing it up as homelessness, which it is not.''

Dr Shiloh Groot (31), who is a poverty researcher and co-chairwoman of the New Zealand Coalition to End Homelessness, says the Government needs to take homelessness more seriously.

The New Zealand definition of homelessness was the result of extensive consultation and research, Auckland-based Dr Groot said. It would help uncover a level of homelessness of which most people were largely ignorant.

Dr Groot ''wouldn't be surprised in the least'' if there were tens of thousands of New Zealanders who came within the definition of homelessness.

The coalition wants the Government to develop a co-ordinated approach to the issue.

''What New Zealand lacks, and really hinders anybody's ability to respond to homelessness is there is ... no leadership in this regard from central government,'' Dr Groot said.

Dr Smith rejects the call for a national homelessness strategy. The Government's housing strategy is a ''far more sensible'' and ''positive'' approach, he says.

Leadership was being provided through ''a very ambitious agenda'' to improve housing affordability and to reform the social housing sector, Dr Smith said.

''[The plan] will mean arguably the biggest changes in a generation'', he said.

The Government wants private social housing providers to take on more of the most needy clients who at present end up on Housing New Zealand's books.

''I've said that I want to grow the community social housing sector to about 20%,'' Dr Smith said.

''Because I believe that for about 20% of those with social housing needs, they have complex needs that are more than just providing a roof over their head. We need to give them the back-up of family support services, of alcohol and drug services, mental health and disability services.''

Specialist providers could do this more effectively than Housing New Zealand, he said.

Almost $3 billion was being spent to improve Housing New Zealand properties during the next three years, including a $320 million programme to add bedrooms to 2000 state houses.

''And that's designed to reduce overcrowding, which we know is linked to diseases like rheumatic fever,'' Dr Smith said.

Dr Amore applauds the Government's efforts to alleviate overcrowding but says adding bedrooms to state houses is ''a tiny intervention compared with what is needed''.

The public will need to wait a little longer to evaluate for themselves the size of the problem.

Dr Amore had anticipated the severe housing deprivation report would be released before the end of this month. But a StatsNZ spokeswoman this week said it could be a couple of months before it was published.

When they are released, the figures based on the 2006 Census will be seven years out of date.

Dr Amore hopes to get funding to produce an up-to-date picture of homelessness based on this year's Census when that data is made available, probably next year.

''It gets quite hidden, so we are trying to bring some light to that,'' she said.