How the pandemic is proving to be a once-in-a-generation chance to end homelessness

Methamphetamine was the one constant in Leroy Smith's life for 20 years. It cost him his partner, his relationship with his children and the roof over his head, ending up living on the street.

"I lost everything - all my mind was on was, when am I going to have my next fix? I was thinking you know I'm going to get off it, but then I was getting right back on it again. 

"It's definitely survival of the fittest out there".

But when COVID-19 hit even the fittest were at risk - Smith along with 500 vulnerable New Zealanders were picked up off the streets and placed in temporary accommodation.

He moved into an Auckland motel on the first day of the lockdown and is slowly adjusting to life inside.

Leroy Smith.
Leroy Smith. Photo credit: The Hui

'We're really freaked out'

Zoe Truell from not-for-profit organisation Lifewise says the pandemic has created an extraordinary opportunity, the likes of which they've never been seen before and the best chance they've had to combat homelessness in Aotearoa.

"We just knew we had to get everybody inside. People were coming to us saying 'we're really freaked out', they were scared and they couldn't socially isolate, because they didn't have a home," says Truell.

Eighty-nine motels across the motu have come on board - partnering with Government to keep rough sleepers like Leroy housed and supported through the rāhui and beyond. 

Lyle Waitai-Tipene, 39, swapped a sleeping bag in the CBD for the home comforts in a motel unit, a life-changing move that happened because of COVID-19.

"I was grateful, overly grateful. It's the Ritz to me, this place. I just try and make the most of what I have. I call it a house."

Motel manager Esther Te Ahuru is overseeing 41 units across two sites, which are putting up around 50 people who before the rāhui, didn't have a home. 

"Our usual clientele is tourists so this is much different for us, very much different," Te Ahuru says.

"This has been a privilege, working with Lifewise and helping our whanau, we've really been grateful," she adds.

She says that in a short space of time, they've created a sense of community here.

"I think after about a month is when we really settled into a period with everybody, and then once they brought in the new lot of guests during level three, we just already had everything sorted.

"Already we've seen with people coming into housing we're making huge changes, even in the motels. They've got somewhere safe and secure that they can relax in - their own bed, somewhere to wash in the morning, those kind of things."

Making the temporary, permanent

 Associate Minister of Housing Nanaia Mahuta says the next step is to go from temporary digs into transitional housing, like a Kaīnga Ora development in the south Auckland suburb of Mangere. The ultimate goal though, is to find whanau a permanent address. 

"It's a partnership approach between the Government, and community housing providers, Māori housing providers, Housing First to be able to understand that and move from confidence with the whanau to their next transition. That's really important for us because we want a sustainable outcome that can help change lives," says Mahuta.

"The big challenge in this space of responding to homelessness and insecure accommodation is that there isn't enough supply out there in the market," she adds.

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: The Hui

Those working to house the homeless are trying to capitalise on businesses hit hard by COVID-19, like those that relied on tourism.

"There's a lot of people contacting us - landlords, people who had Airbnbs and now they haven't got anyone to rent them. There's no tourism so they're coming to us and saying, 'Would you like to rent this out? We'd like to help people who are homeless,' which is quite a turnaround, and that pipeline of housing is really opening," says Truell.

"It's really exciting. It's a very open time, there's a lot of opportunities."

"I'm seeing a lot of interest from for example Māori providers and iwi who are putting their hands up and saying, 'Well actually we want to do something as well,'" adds Mahuta. 

"So in my mind if we take an approach where everybody is a part of the solution, then we're going to have an enduring solution in terms of secure accommodation for families."

Economic hardship bites

And not having a home goes hand in hand with not having enough kai to eat. Take a trip to Auckland City Mission's food bank and there's no shortage of people in need of their help - demand for their food parcels more than doubled during lockdown, and they estimate around 1 million Kiwis are going hungry.

"Part of a theme that we have seen happen during this COVID period is that the realities that existed before has been brought to the surface, and really highlighted. We're really keen now to not only bring people indoors but keep them indoors forever, so that is the extraordinary opportunity that we have now," says Auckland City Mission general manager of social services Helen Robinson.

With economic times expected to hit whanau even harder - there's no doubt there'll be more heartbreak ahead.

"We are thinking that there's going to be a whole new wave of people coming through who are homeless, we know that already," says Truell. 

"We're seeing new people dropping out onto the street. Until we stop poverty, until we fix the inequality in New Zealand, we're not going to stop homelessness continuing to happen, so that's what we need to focus on."

Zoe hopes that despite the hardships, COVID-19 could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve homelessness once and for all.

"Housing is a basic human right, but we haven't had the opportunity until now to make that real, to make that true for people".

Leroy Smith.
Leroy Smith. Photo credit: The Hui

Smith's problems won't be solved by four walls alone. Staying clean is still a constant challenge, but it's one he can face while living in his own whare - a fighting chance to rebuild his life and reunite with his whanau.

 "That's my main focus - getting my kids especially to come and stay with me, so we can spend a bit more time. I can't really dwell on the past. I've got to try and move forward, that's my biggest thing, to try to move on, get better."

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