Wellington residents no longer feel safe as 'chaotic' disorder reigns on central streets

 Some residents are taking matters into their own hands.
Some residents are taking matters into their own hands. Photo credit: Getty

"It was random, it was chaos and it was quite disgustingly violent." 

Those are the words from a victim of an unprovoked attack on one of Wellington's increasingly dangerous central streets. 

The man, who spoke to Newshub anonymously, says Wellington is no longer the city he grew up in - and doesn't feel safe anymore. 

He says while he "got lucky", the next person may not be granted the same fate after being beaten while on his way to get a late meal. 

After leaving a friend's wedding, he and another mate approached the Manners St Opera House, he says he saw a crowd of around eight to 12 people loitering.

"I remember this man walking towards me, fists clenched. He said 'gimme a hundred bucks' - I think I said something like 'f***k no I'm not giving you 100 bucks."

Upon rejection, the alleged attacker closed the distance and lashed out. 

"I had my hands up and then he just punched me in the throat, then the back of the head and took me down."

The victim says his head was "smashed" against the pavement as his attacker straddled him, repeatedly throwing punches - some of which the man managed to dodge.

Eventually, the attacker was pulled off by another member of the group, and he was able to stumble away.

"[The attacker] was trying to break my skull on the pavement - if I hadn't dodged those punches I could very easily be in a coma in the hospital."

In shock and bleeding profusely, he was able to make it to Manners St McDonalds.

"As we walked in, the night manager just said something like 'oh no, not another one' - clearly in reference to me bleeding everywhere, having just been attacked."

Assaults in the area have been on the rise with police data showing the number of acts intended to cause injury, including common and serious assault, have grown by 35 percent between 2015 and 2020. 

A September Wellington City Council report revealed anti-social behaviour was occurring "every hour of every day" on Wellington's Golden Mile, which runs from Lambton Quay through to Courtenay Place. 

Intimidation, violence, defecation, graffiti, harassment, physical harm, aggressive behaviour, loud music, drug dealing, and sexual violence are rife, and frightened residents feel there's no end in sight. 

'Unfair' to blame social housing 

National's housing spokesperson has blamed what she calls "an explosion" of social housing tenants in the area.

Nicola Willis said she no longer feels safe walking the streets, as an increase of people in emergency housing and growing gang presence means the streets are tense with violence. 

But Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson blasted these comments as "dehumanising" in a fiery retort towards Willis in Parliament.

"I am accusing a member, a National member, of this House of attempting to stigmatise a group of people with little access to power and resourcing, of attempting to whip up stigmatising and dehumanising narratives around groups of people who need our support," Davidson said.

The Government says social housing has nothing to do with the feelings of unease on Wellington's streets - and to infer so is "dog-whistle politics".

Wellington MP Grant Robertson says he is working to eliminate the "scourge" of violence and intimidation in the city - but leave emergency housing out of it. 

"The conflation of this with the provision of transitional and emergency housing and those that are needing this is, in my view 'dog whistle' politics," he said on Saturday.

"We all need to do more to work together to provide our city residents with the support that is needed and at the same time to stamp out any criminal or threatening activity that is happening. Both are possible without the need to stigmatise those who need transitional and emergency housing."

His view is shared by councillor Tamatha Paul who told Newshub it's "unfair" to conflate violence with social housing.

"People, particularly students, have felt unsafe in the city for a very long time before the influx of emergency housing tenants arrived and I think it's unfair that the issues have been conflated. These are complex socio-economic issues that require very different solutions."

She says the council is looking at support systems for tenants, as it's clear the backpackers and hotels they have been shifted into are "not adequate".

Demand for social housing has been rising since 2018 - in December 2020 22,521 people needed housing - and with hotels and backpackers begging for revenue after COVID-19 closed the borders, many of these people have been placed into hotels which line the streets of Wellington's nightlife.

Karen Hocking, MSD's general manager of housing, confirmed Cuba Street, Courtenay Place and Manners Stall now have emergency housing on them.

"The Ministry began working with these businesses as emergency housing suppliers as part of our response to COVID-19."

She says the "vast majority" of clients are respectful and don't cause trouble."

But that doesn't fit with the lived experience of Wellingtonians. 

Many people spoken to by Newshub - including the attack victim - said they no longer felt safe walking the streets day or night. 

"It is intimidating and it is threatening," he said.

"Until this happened to me I just used to brush it off and say 'ah well they won't bother me' - but clearly not. And now I  think 'at any moment, one of those people could come and punch me in the head'."

'I've never seen anything like this"

Regardless of who or what is to blame, residents say the city's face is changing - and its new look is an ugly one.

"I've lived in this city my entire life," the man who was attacked told Newshub.

"I've never seen anything like the pervasiveness of this kind of loitering. There've always been loiterers but it used to be five or six and you'd actually know them and now that's not the case."

Businesses along Courtenay Place, Cuba and Manners St say the same - that violence and disorder is out of control, happening all day every day - and no one seems to know what to do about it.

Danger Danger owner Matt McLaughlin told Newshub in January it's the worst he's seen in the 25 years he's worked in the area,

"It used to be we knew every face of the homeless, we knew who was harmless and who was trouble but even that trouble was once in a blue moon.

"I don't see any of those people anymore - it's a whole new fresh bunch of faces and it's multiplied by 100."

"Violence happens to anyone"

But it appears no one has any concrete ideas on how to solve the problem. It's so bad that Wellington residents are taking matters into their own hands.

Wellington woman Louise Chan has 20 years of martial arts experience, and she told Newshub she saw so many posts on social media of people feeling unsafe in Wellington, she wanted to arm people with tools to fight back.

"If we can give people more knowledge around how real-world violence works then they have something up their sleeves to defend themselves," she said.

She's in the process of organising a free self-defence course to try and help people feel safer about town.

The interest she has received has taken her completely by surprise.

"I was expecting 20 or 30 people and it was going to be a fairly low key event but it turned out to be something big."

More than 80 people have expressed an interest in learning from Chan - which she says is a sad indicator of the state of the city.

"[I feel] completely disheartened - I feel really sad for society that there is so much interest but at the same time I'm feeling like at least they're willing to do something about it rather than bury their heads and say it won't happen to me."

While a lot of the interest has come from women, Chan says the class won't be just for them.

"Violence happens to anyone - men are absolutely victims to it as well."

The free class is still in its infancy - the surge of demand means Chan needs to find an appropriate location that can accommodate everyone - but in the meantime, she had some words of wisdom for those going about their business.

"I see a lot of people walking around engrossed in their phones - just try and be a bit more aware when they're out and about."

It's a warning echoed by the assault victim - he said while he is slowly getting used to being back in the city following his ordeal, anyone who enters that part of town should keep their wits about them.

"I would caution people - especially if they're walking through that area - do it quickly if you need to - head down tail up."