Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyJune 14, 2020

How lockdown helped get Wellington’s rough sleepers off the streets

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

While undoubtedly a challenging time, for many of the capital’s most marginalised people, the Covid-19 crisis provided the motivation they needed to move into a home – and showed how well government, social and community agencies can work together to help.

When the call came to go home and stay home because of the threat of Covid-19, the kaimahi at DCM knew they had to get out on the streets.

DCM – formerly the Downtown Community Ministry – supports the capital’s most marginalised people, including getting rough sleepers off the street and into sustainable housing. The lockdown acutely sharpened that need, with alert level four requiring everyone to form their own bubble. So, while New Zealanders settled in front of Netflix, DCM staff worked quickly with partners to develop new ways to support those who have no home.

That work began with DCM’s team gearing up to gather up Wellington’s rough sleepers and settle them into the emergency accommodation rapidly organised by the government and other agencies.

Throughout the lockdown, DCM’s Natalia Cleland and her outreach team left the safety of their homes to talk to people street begging or sleeping rough, offering support to get them into their own whare. They responded to calls from the public to the Wellington City Council, or notifications from other agencies, including police, the hospital and mental health services. As the outreach team has been doing this mahi for some time, they knew the usual places to look – Midland Park, the waterfront, the train station, Lambton Quay, Manners Street – sheltered places for sleeping, or with high foot traffic for street begging.

Each time Cleland’s team located a rough sleeper and encouraged them to accept support, other team members took over, working fast to settle the taumai – what DCM calls the people they work with, which appropriately means “to settle” – into emergency housing.

Lambton Quay’s Midland Park during lockdown on April 3 (Photo: Mike Clare/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

And they went. Over the lockdown, DCM supported more than 60 taumai – including some who weren’t previously on its radar – into emergency accommodation provided at motels, lodges and apartments.

“Some of these people would not have even considered going into housing before the lockdown,” says Cleland. “We often talk about ‘ki te hoe’ or ‘pick up the paddle’, which is about finding the thing that finally motivates someone to pick up the paddle and get into a whare.

“It seemed that once they realised the things they rely on to make rough sleeping relatively comfortable – such as money and food from street begging, and using public toilets – wouldn’t be available during the lockdown, they were more open to being accommodated.”

DCM’s mantra is “together we can end homelessness” and Cleland says this change points to the part the public play in perpetuating homelessness. “If people aren’t out and about, giving street beggars and rough sleepers money, food and blankets, they’re more likely to want to be housed. Giving someone these things makes the giver feel better but it really doesn’t help.”

Paula Lloyd, a team leader on Aro Mai, the Housing First collaboration DCM is part of, says the lockdown showed how well government, social and community agencies can work together.

“Before lockdown, the whole process around emergency housing was slow and complex, but with the Covid-19 challenge, we worked together to rapidly improve and expedite the process.

“HUD, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, quickly focused on finding emergency housing, including many private properties, such as motels and the like, which opened their doors to taumai. Also, the Ministry of Social Development regularly checked in with us, making sure we had what we needed and supporting our work every step of the way.”

Halswell Lodge in Mt Victoria, one of the motels used to house rough sleepers during lockdown (Photo: Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett)

Generous donors gave funds to buy mobile phones for taumai, and a new 0800 phone support service was set up just before lockdown to allow taumai to call DCM for free, connecting with a staff member monitoring the number from home. This also provided ongoing work for DCM kaimahi with vulnerable health who needed to work from home.

“The phones have been invaluable for many of our taumai and some have become quite communicative over text,” says Cleland. “I received a text from a man who usually says very little, but he sent me a long text about how lucky we are to be in Aotearoa, and how adversity can bring us all together to build real communities. It was really uplifting.”

Also uplifting, she says, is how the taumai have been helping each other, supporting each other through the lockdown and contacting DCM if they feel another taumai needs support. “We work on the premise that we lift each other up. But we’re not here just to lift up taumai – they must also put in the work to lift themselves up. Seeing them succeed then lifts us up.”

Another much-needed innovation brought in quickly because of the lockdown was the issuing of prepaid cards (like a debit card) to all taumai using DCM’s money management service. Some of the capital’s most marginalised people have no ID, which makes it impossible to get a benefit or open a bank account. DCM works with them to access a benefit, which is deposited into DCM’s money management service account. Once the taumai’s bills are paid, the remainder of their benefit is given to the taumai by cheque, which, pre-Covid, had to be cashed at a bank.

However, with banks closed during lockdown – and many phasing out accepting cheques in the near future – an immediate and long-term option had to be found. DCM worked with MSD and Westpac to give these taumai a prepaid card that was automatically topped up each week, allowing them to access their remaining money via an ATM.

“Usually this would have taken a couple of months to organise, but we expedited it within two weeks so they could have their money,” says Julie Hopkins, transactional solutions manager at Westpac.

DCM’s Peni Fiti and Dominic Leeson help a taumai move into housing

Having the taumai in emergency housing during lockdown offered DCM an invaluable window of opportunity to get them into permanent housing – something that might have been inconceivable for some taumai a few months ago. Lloyd says this situation, while so very challenging, has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the most marginalised people.

“Our focus has now shifted to finding permanent housing for them and already we are seeing successes. As just one example, a taumai with a long history with DCM agreed to move into emergency housing after years and years of sleeping in the bush. We have just helped him move into a permanent Wellington City Housing whare, where he will be warm and dry, and still have independence while being checked on regularly. It’s a real success story for one of our long-term rough sleepers,” says Lloyd.

Other DCM kaimahi report similar stories, sometimes barely recognising former rough sleepers as they now are clean, rested, comfortable, and much happier and healthier.

DCM’s director, Stephanie McIntyre, says that while it brought many challenges, the lockdown also expedited a number of long-term solutions to benefit their taumai – the phones, the 0800 number, the prepaid cards, and, most importantly, getting them into housing.

The vast majority of taumai in emergency housing are still there, and DCM kaimahi are working hard to transition them into permanent housing.

“We can’t go backwards from here. We have seen what can happen when people are properly supported into good housing, and we have seen what happens when organisations pull together to innovate and make decisions rapidly.”

“We have always said that ‘together we can end homelessness’. These weeks, although terrible in many ways, have given us a valuable window to go hard and fast to end homelessness. Let’s work together to finish what we’ve started.”

Keep going!