Work and Income case manager tells client seeking housing support to 'go rob a bank'

Rayssa Almeida for RNZ

A Work and Income case manager shouted at his client to shut up and asked him if he wanted to go back to prison when he sought housing support.

Sajay Singh, 47, spent two years in Auckland Prison for drug supply.

He said after finishing his sentence he was ready to turn his life around.

"I had a bad habit because I had a broken marriage and that ended me into drugs and depression. So that's where the habit came from, and I went to prison for that reason.

"But then I managed to complete the drug treatment course and [the prison officers] there elected me as a mentor out of about 100 prisoners.

"I was doing good; I promised my family that I'd [get] out and I'd change my life around and I wouldn't do drugs again."

He said his rehabilitation programme was working and he was ready to reconnect with his family.

"I've had three drug tests [since I left prison] that I've passed, and I haven't relapsed, and I've got a job offer as well.

"I'm trying to move forward, but my accommodation is the main problem."

Singh was released in September and has been living in his vehicle after moving out of a boarding house paid for by Work and Income - where he did not feel safe.

He said the boarding house was grim, but it was the violence of other residents, rather than the cold showers, which prompted him to find somewhere else to live.

"Jail was better than that place. In jail you have storage, you have facilities, you have hot water. There you had a square-box room, a bed and that was all.

"And some people there are heavy on drugs, you know, and getting out of a drug habit surrounded by it, it's really hard, you know. It was not a safe space for me to be in."

Sajay Singh has been living in his vehicle.
Sajay Singh has been living in his vehicle. Photo credit: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

Earlier this month, Singh sought help from Work and Income.

He recorded the phone call with his case manager, who RNZ has agreed not to name.

RNZ has listened to the recording.

During the phone call, the case manager seemed frustrated by Singh's request.

"OK Sajay, I'll be upfront with you, can I be upfront with you? Where can [Work and Income] house people with prison records? Where do you think I could put you? With the present record?" the case manager asked.

"You come to me for accommodation, help, right? And we help you. And now you turn around and say the shower is too cold. You wanna go back to prison? Back to prison, do you? Wanna go back to prison? No? So, shut up then, don't say that," he continued.

In the recording, the case manager told Singh to stop complaining.

"You're the only one that's complained about [the] lodge. One person, I put 40 people [there].

"You can't be fussy, okay? I'm gonna tell you straight, you cannot be fussy, okay? Look at yourself. Look at your record. Do you think someone, do you think normal private accommodation will take you?"

By the end of the recording, the case manager could be heard telling Singh to "go rob a bank".

"I'm gonna end this conversation, you annoying me, okay? You know, you are actually annoying me.

"You know what? Go rob a bank and see how you feel."

Singh said the treatment he received from the government agency was degrading and triggering.

"Ever since I've had that conversation that's broken me down because I've done my sentence and done my punishment, I was moving forward.

"So ever since [that call] I felt belittled, I feel really ashamed. That really hit me, and I feel like I've lost my confidence."

He said the case manager's attitude had taken a toll on his mental health.

"[The case manager] made me feel like a piece of shit to be honest. He made me feel so low down, that whole day I was sad, I was crying.

"He was supposed to help me, but instead he told me to rob a bank. Who am I going [to go to] for help now?"

Singh said the lack of empathy from public services meant to help people was the reason ex-inmates ended up back into prison.

"Some of us come out [of prison] and are really trying to get back on our feet, you know? People like [the case manager] are one of the reasons why we go back inside.

"He made me feel like I was worth nothing."

'Unacceptable language' - MSD

In a statement Ministry of Social Development Regional Commissioner Mark Goldsmith said the language in the recording was not acceptable.

"I have been provided with a copy of the recording.

"What I heard was totally unacceptable language in any circumstances. It does not meet my expectations of the service we want to provide."

He said front line staff worked hard to support their clients.

"This is very disappointing. I unreservedly apologise to Mr Singh."

Goldsmith said staff met with Singh to apologise in person.

"We are working with him to solve his housing needs. We will remain in touch with him until this is resolved."

On the MSD case manager the statement said: "In relation to the staff member concerned this is now an employment matter. For reasons of privacy we have no further comment."