Luxury cars or help for the homeless?

A ministerial BMW costs about $200,000 (Reuters)
A ministerial BMW costs about $200,000 (Reuters)

Twenty homeless youth could be housed and educated for the price of a ministerial car, saving taxpayers millions in the long run, says the Dunedin Methodist Mission.

The mission estimates there are around 600 teenagers aged between 16 and 19 in Dunedin struggling to find a safe place to sleep at night. It surveyed 300 at-risk youth and found 39 percent were couch-surfing, 7 percent sleeping rough and 4 percent trading sex for beds.

"Sure, 11's not a huge figure, but you've got to keep it in context -- this is 16 and 17-year-old girls who are in some pretty coercive and exploitative situations. That's not acceptable," spokesperson Jimmy McLauchlan told Paul Henry on Monday.

He says the problem is getting worse and while there's no single cause, breakdowns at home are usually at the core of it.

"It's mental health, it's poverty, it's family violence, drugs and alcohol, a whole lot of reasons."

Another is the growing housing crisis, which Mr McLauchlan says isn't limited to Auckland.

"You've also now got real strain on the rental market because fewer people are owning homes, and youth employment in Dunedin is a major issue. In the past where somebody's maybe had a breakdown at home and they've essentially been homeless for a period of time, they've been able to pick up part-time work and maybe get on track in terms of supporting themselves.

"That's much harder now than it was 10, 15 years ago."

The problem's not quite as bad in Dunedin as it is elsewhere though, and Mr McLauchlan says with a bit more financial help, they could "get our arms around" it.

"If you take the 20 hardest cases from our data -- these are the 16-year-olds selling sex and these are the rough sleepers -- Treasury knows that those 20 teenagers are going to cost the Government $3.5 million by the time they're 35. That's just 20 kids," he explains.

"We've got a facility in mind that for about the cost of a ministerial car, will actually find those 20 -- or the vast majority of them -- stable accommodation and get them good education and training. The cost of doing nothing is absolutely huge."

A ministerial BMW costs about $200,000. The Government bought 32 of the gas-guzzlers last year, but wouldn't comment on whether it got a bulk-buy discount. They are usually replaced every three years.