Homelessness: What can the Mayor do?

Every Mayor wants to do something they will be remembered for. Could Auckland’s new one become famous for ending chronic homelessness?

In many cities that are ending chronic homelessness there is a common factor: strong Mayoral leadership in bringing together communities, service providers, government and social agencies. What Auckland needs is a housing strategy and a Mayor who is audacious enough to develop one. We say audacious because the Mayor has to acknowledge that some tough decisions need to be made. And some imaginative thinking is in order too, as Council needs to grapple courageously with what government will and won’t do.

We see this as a fitting challenge for the new Mayor of Auckland. With that in mind, Lifewise held a special briefing at Merge Café, where the Housing First Project was presented to a number of Auckland mayoral candidates.

We were very pleased by the interest shown and the questions raised. One of these raised more questions in my mind: When does the Housing First process stop? The short answer is it does not have to stop. For the long answer, let’s understand what Housing First involves.

The process, as it were, begins when a homeless person decides they want a home. Ideally, they also decide the type and location of their home and also whether and who they want to live with. Any support or wrap-around services they need are put in place by collaboration amongst service providers, social agencies, and government. These services may include mental health and alcohol and drug treatment, or day-to-day budgeting of household expenses. The wrap-around services continue for as long as the person needs them. And even afterwards, these services remain available. This is why the Housing First process does not have to stop.

We know that all this costs money, which is why we want homelessness to end, for wrap-around services to become unnecessary. But how can that happen unless wider issues related to homelessness are addressed: poverty, disconnection from family and whanau supports, and inequality, for example. Can we ensure job security; a regular, liveable income? Can we protect our most vulnerable Kiwis from losing their home? Can we build strong supportive communities so more people can feel like they belong, like they also matter?

With 41,000 homeless New Zealanders at last count, it’s no secret that this problem has reached countrywide proportions. Meanwhile here in Auckland, over 20,000 people are homeless: That’s 49% of the nation’s total. We have among the highest prevalence of homelessness — 14 people per every 1000 Aucklanders experience homelessness.

Addressing these numbers with policy decisions and funding budgets for building more homes are on the central government’s to-do list. However, it is up to the Mayor to listen closely to the people of their city, understand what they need, and bring together the services and support to help them.

Social agencies like Lifewise always welcome government support, be it via funding to keep our services going or through the expertise that a collaborative venture like Housing First requires. However, without a housing strategy for putting solutions into practice and measuring the results, we risk disappointment.

Our goal of ending chronic homelessness is indeed ambitious – some might say, audacious, too – but this goal is not impossible. It’s going to need a concerted effort and sustained focus, over longer than just one Mayor’s term in office. And that can be the legacy they leave behind.

[This post first appeared on The Daily Blog on 23 September 2016]

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