Queen St shop owners struggle with growing number of homeless

Shop owners on Auckland's Queen St say they're fed up with threatening and abusive behaviour from rough sleepers.

The boss at McDonald's doesn't like to bundle all rough sleepers outside his joint into the same "intimidating" category - but with so many past run-ins, feels he has no choice.

"Smoking cannabis, smoking cigarettes in the restaurant," franchisee Prakash Hira says.

"Staff have been threatened in the past. We've had to hire security."

Once or twice, those congregating outside have been given leftover food by patrons, and then enter the store and try to swap it for money, he says.

"They'll walk up to a customer and take something off the tray... it's not the customer's fault so we have to replace the meal.

"It's a select few that spoil it for the majority.

"No matter how much sympathy we may have for some of them, it's sort of wiped away by the ongoing antisocial behaviour."

Community organisation Lifewise says there's a danger in stereotyping and people should avoid stigmatising behaviours and attitudes.

They say many people sleeping rough are respectful and blend in to the background.

The horror stories

However shop owners say the growing number of rough sleepers on the thriving central city street has left them grappling with how to deal with the situation.

Staff at JayJays feel so unsafe, after clocking out they'll wait half an hour to buddy up with the next person to walk home with.

"There have been a couple of times they do what we call the 'no pants party' - where they literally just take off their pants," store manager Stacey Lee-Hunt tells Newshub.

Ms Hunt says she calls police one or two times a week "for general disturbances, drug abuse, alcohol issues or [rough sleepers] abusing people".

"I've had them try and hide inside my store from police."

Ms Hunt often sees the same crowd, who she suspects have been on "stealing sprees", using the phone booth outside to make swaps.

"If I do see they've stolen stuff I'll go back to that store and tell them. We won't try and get their stuff back because that's just asking for trouble."

Every store Newshub spoke to has its own horror story. Dotti has lost customers because the crowd hanging around can be so intimidating.

"They just smoke [synthetic drugs] right there in public view. The smell wafts right into the store... they're like zombies," store manager Te Aroha Looker told Newshub.

"They'll huddle in groups of four or five of them, asleep standing up. They're falling over, their eyes are glazed over."

Once a man tried to force a staff member behind the counter, who managed to get him out and lock the doors. A second time, a group of men cornered another man in the store.

"As soon as I heard the word 'knife' I called the police," Ms Looker says. It's a call she's had to make nearly 10 times during her six months working there.

The owner of InBody Beauty Spa Amy Clarkson told Newshub one of her clients was harassed for money as she walked to the store.

"Then they spat on her."

Once when Ms Clarkson was working alone, a group of people entered her store and stole products.

"It was only me there at the time. It was really quite intimidating... luckily they left.

Don't stereotype

A study conducted by Lifewise, titled Inside The Cup, gives a voice to those who behave respectfully on the street and blend into the background, and as a result, often get bundled in with the bad eggs.

"You get abuse sometimes," one rough sleeper said in the report.

"They call you a loser, but you just learn to close your ears. People who do that, they just don't understand. They come from a different lifestyle.

"People can walk past and look at you like you're nothing. I don't like it when people look at me like that.

"One time, someone kicked over my cup and all my coins went everywhere. He didn't even say sorry."

One woman says she only "hustles for what I need".

"I don't get greedy. It's normally when I'm hungry or when I need women's stuff.

"They just lump us together like we're under the same umbrella. They should realise it's the new ones that cause all the trouble."

Rough sleeper George, 56, even engages with shop owners near his 'spot', and they sometimes ask him to do odd job for them. He says he really enjoys that, because he loves to work.

The report says people who hustle are often seeking connection with others.

"Many find these connections through their interactions and with the wider Auckland community.

Engage with them

Auckland City Mission says homeless and beggars are "difficult to distinguish and not necessarily related".

"Someone could be begging but housed," the mission's spokesperson said in a statement.

"For the last 10 years the mission's rough sleepers count has shown an increase in rough sleeping in the CBD."

The mission's advice for any shop owner fed-up with a rough sleeper is to talk to them.

"Ask them to move on if they are blocking their doorway. If the person was homeless they could also let them know there is the City Mission on Hobson St that has services that help."

Police say there were 4649 callouts to Queen St last year alone, but they could not say which proportion of those calls involved rough sleepers.

They said the number of callouts in 2017 was roughly the same as 2016.