Emergency housing: Youth in emergency accommodation felt 'safer on the streets' than in NZ's motels - Lifewise

Young people living in emergency accommodation are being subjected to the same trauma they experienced on the streets, according to a youth development worker, with many reporting violence, abuse and harassment at the hands of vulnerable adults.

Last year, an estimated 2000 teenagers were housed in New Zealand's emergency accommodation. A number of motels are providing temporary shelter - but while moteliers are trying their best to help the country's most vulnerable, many youth are suffering without adequate support or the services to protect them. 

"It's meant to be an emergency response, but actually it's exacerbating the problem. It's making that young person's experience of homelessness more likely to continue," Lifewise youth leader Aaron Hendry told The AM Show on Tuesday.

While people "would think" emergency housing is safer than the streets, a number of homeless youth have claimed the motels pose a greater threat to their welfare than rough-sleeping, Hendry says.

"Some of the experiences we're hearing from young people is that they were actually safer living on the streets. Their experience of being in emergency accommodation is more traumatising and more dangerous," he said.

"Often these environments are unsafe, often they don't have support around them. Imagine a 16 or 17-year-old you love and care about - would you put them in a motel by themself with a bunch of vulnerable adults? We know young people have been traumatised by [their experience]."

Although Hendry did not give direct examples of the alleged abuse, he said youth had reported harassment, violence, abuse and exploitation at the hands of adults living in the same spaces. 

"They are being re-traumatised by the violence and abuse happening in those environments. It's not the solution and our young people aren't safe."

Lifewise, an independent charitable trust, offers a youth housing service for 16 to 24-year-olds without a safe or stable place to live. The trust is part of Manaaki Rangatahi, a collective of organisations dedicated to tackling youth homelessness in Aotearoa. 

The non-profit is now calling on the Government to introduce facilities offering immediate accommodation for homeless young people. Operated by social services, the facilities would provide wraparound support to reconnect youth with their community and set them on a path to securing permanent housing. 

"We're saying we need immediate accommodation - a facility that's set up that a young person can go to. If they're homeless tonight, they can go there and receive wraparound support, and be supported to reconnect back into their community. A roof, and services - a safe space where they've got [access] to services on-site," Hendry explained. 

"In a lot of cases, moteliers are doing their best to support vulnerable people, but don't have the skills of a social service provider - facilities run by social service providers could prevent long-term homelessness by intervening in the first instance."

In an interview with The AM Show last August, Lifewise chief executive Jo Denvir said that youth homelessness is the primary concern among social services, noting that there is no safe emergency accommodation specifically designed for young people. 

"The problem is we don't actually have any safe emergency accommodation for young people... they can be as young as 13, 16 or 17. We had a couple of children in the last lockdown who were 13," she said, adding that very few emergency housing providers are willing to take those under 18 due to their age.

Hendry reiterated this on Tuesday, adding that a number of 16 and 17-year-olds were turned away from emergency housing throughout New Zealand's lockdown due to their age. 

"There's nowhere. If they're lucky they get into one of these motels, but that's really hard… that means they're either sleeping on Queen St or staying in abusive environments, or living in housing that's just not fit for purpose.

"There's a huge amount of funds we could redirect into creating solutions to support people so they're safe and stop that experience of homelessness long-term." 

Last April the Government announced it would spend more than $100 million to house the homeless in motels until they could be moved to more permanent housing. The $107.6 million was in addition to the financial boost announced pre-COVID in February 2020, which was focused on creating additional transitional housing for New Zealand's most vulnerable.

The Government has committed to building 8000 additional homes, with former Public Housing Associate Minister Kris Faafoi saying last year that motels, while not ideal, were "better than living in the back of a car".

"It's obviously not ideal for people to be in emergency housing or transitional housing - but certainly pre and post-COVID, making sure people have got a roof over their head is what we've tried to make sure is there for them," Faafoi said in August.

"If you look at the last three years the waiting list obviously has grown, but we're also making sure that we're increasing supply."