We’re being told to stay home and limit social interaction, but for hundreds of New Zealanders sleeping rough that’s not possible. So what care is in place for them?
On March 21, prime minister Jacinda Ardern issued a directive to New Zealanders: stay home. As of midnight last night, this rule has been enforced. Police and the defence force have been given directives to ensure people are sticking to the rules, staying in their home unless they’re accessing essential services like supermarkets, GPs and petrol stations. But for the thousands of New Zealanders who don’t have a permanent home, what are the options?
The closure of many public spaces, including libraries, means there is already less accommodation and fewer places of refuge for people who are sleeping rough in our biggest city. Now that the country is in level four of our alert plan, the situation for rough sleepers is getting difficult.
Zoe Truell is Lifewise’s manager of practice and development. She’s part of a team that’s put together Street Reach, an outreach programme for Auckland-based homeless people. They’re putting those most at risk into emergency accommodation with the help of the Ministry of Social Development, and giving out food parcels and information to those who need it.
“The Street Reach workers are talking to them, reassuring them and are letting people know that if they are sick with any of the symptoms, if they’re elderly, if they have any underlying health issues, that we will support them into emergency accommodation for as long as the level four alert continues, and that we will provide them with support and food while they are in the motel.”
City Missions around the country have adapted how they work to ensure staff are abiding by the social distancing rules, while still caring for rough sleepers. In Christchurch and Auckland, food bank services will continue, with food parcels now delivered to those in need to avoid large gatherings at the usual pick up points.
Services like counselling, social support and addiction support will continue where possible over the phone and emergency accommodation services will continue.
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Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge says there has been a huge effort over the last few days replacing the usual protocols to ensure those who use the City Mission services are still able to safely.
He says a lot of the people the organisation is seeing have some idea of what’s going on, but don’t have the resources to act on any instruction. There are plans in place to house some of Wellington’s homeless population, details of which are expected today.
“Community organisations are working with local council and central government to establish a fully supported and fed accommodation facility for those who have nowhere to go in the current crisis. It will be for a period of time and then we will need to review that.”
Truell says a lot of Auckland’s rough sleepers are unaware of the extent of what’s happening, and that lack of knowledge could be putting them in danger.
“At the moment the Street Reach workers are going out onto the street, speaking with rough sleepers and helping inform them about what the information is around the virus. They’re finding that people are not well informed on the street, they’re quite fearful, they’re feeling left out… They’re worried that they’re going to be rounded up by the police after Wednesday night and be put in cells.”
But Truell says rough sleepers aren’t the only demographic that is going to struggle with housing and financial issues during the four-week isolation period. Those in poverty will face unique problems, and it’s important the government recognises this.
“We have people who are not only rough sleepers but are living in poverty who are really scared about how they’re going to get through, in spite of the $25 a week increase for beneficiaries. There can be a lot of costs for these people with isolating at home, if they have a home, and people who were already marginalised are more marginalised now, and they’re really fearing that.”
New rules put in place by the government on Wednesday include rental increase freezes and a ban on tenancy terminations, which should provide some security to renters for the next three months.
Edridge says the Wellington City Mission will continue to deliver food and money to some of the region’s most at risk, taking on a triage role as other food banks in Wellington shut.
“Many of the food banks that operate are based on volunteer labour, and a number of those, because of the availability of people and some of the restrictions and access to food, haven’t been able to continue. We’ve agreed with council that we will do a triage service where we will monitor and respond accordingly to calls. In the first instance it’s referring people to local supply if possible, if that’s not possible we’re arranging to get deliveries done for them.”
While the country goes into isolation, Edridge says the most important thing is to continue to be kind.
“There are opportunities to connect with people who might be more vulnerable, whether that’s the neighbours or other people in the community. We’re asking people to just pay attention to what’s happening around them and look after each other. If we all do a bit of that then we’ll get through it.”