Why this Wellington man chooses to be homeless despite being offered housing

James, who is homeless says he prefers to sleep in carparks which have security cameras rather than boarded-up buildings like Pringle House.
James, who is homeless says he prefers to sleep in carparks which have security cameras rather than boarded-up buildings like Pringle House. Photo credit: Photo: Kate Green / RNZ

By Pretoria Gordon of RNZ

A homeless Wellington man says he prefers to sleep rough after living on the streets for nearly 20 years.

On Tuesday afternoon, Te Whatu Ora confirmed a man was in a critical condition at Wellington Hospital after falling three storeys through a collapsed stairwell on Monday night at boarded-up Pringle House on Wakefield Street. He was not rescued until Tuesday morning.

There are between 150 and 200 people living on the streets in Wellington, according to Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge.

And one of them, who RNZ is calling James, said he would rather be homeless.

"I've been offered housing dozens of times over the course of my life, and I've never taken it," he said.

"A lot of people won't, or they will, but because we have no real life skills - paying bills, cleaning up, cooking - you end up getting kicked out after three months anyway.

"It's like a vicious cycle."

James said having a room, or a house, could also bring trouble.

"Other homeless people find out about it, and then all of a sudden, you've got 10 people in your house getting high, getting wasted, and it gets trashed, and you're the one responsible for the bills."

In summer, James sleeps in the CBD or on the waterfront. In winter, he sleeps in car park buildings.

James chooses to sleep in car park buildings instead of vacant buildings, like Pringle House or the Amora Hotel on Wakefield Street, because they have security cameras.

"They're not watched all the time, but if anything was to happen to me, there'll be some accountability for that."

Jason Dunn from Prime Property told RNZ on Tuesday that Pringle House was sealed off with security fencing, and internal access had been partially blocked, but people still managed to find a way in.

James said homeless people used vacant buildings to do drugs and get high, without people watching them.

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau said she was working with Building and Construction Minister Chris Penk to explore whether councils should have "greater power to deal with buildings that pose a risk to public safety".

City councillor Iona Pannett, who represents the Pukehīnau/Lambton Ward, told Midday Report vacant buildings were not a good outcome for anyone in the city.

They were difficult to police, she said, as owners were responsible for securing their own buildings, and the council did not have the legislative power to inspect them.

"Owners should not be allowed to sit on their land for so long, leaving their buildings undeveloped," Pannett said.

"In fact, the council has just passed a rating differential, which means that people who do have vacant buildings will have to pay five times as much as a residential ratepayer would have to pay, so hopefully that will help."

A long-term plan engagement document showed there were about 60 properties that would be affected by the change.

'I've just made peace with what my life is'

There are a range of factors that can contribute to a person being homeless, but for James, it was his mental health.

"Most of us are drug addicts and alcoholics," he said.

"Usually that preceded being homeless - for me, it didn't, but for a lot of people, it did.

"For me, that has followed on as a result of this.

"Life is hard, and being out here is rough."

James has been living on the streets since he was 19.

He believed once you became homeless, there was "really no way out".

"Even with DCM and The Salvation Army, they keep you clothed and fed and everything like that, but it becomes your life. It really does. And it becomes impossible to try and pull yourself out of it," he said.

"You can go to rehab, and things like that, but it's tough.

"It's not like we can just go get a trade or go get a degree. I left school when I was 13 - the Ministry of Education signed off an exemption and let me go, just because I was disruptive and dyslexic and all the rest."

James said he had accepted that he would live on the streets for the rest of his life.

"I've just made peace with what my life is, and I try and stay healthy, and I try and be respectful, and I just get on with my day, really, and stay away from the 'Looney Tunes'. I mean, I feel bad for them, I do, but at the same time, I've got to look after my own back.

"And it's the same with the members of the public too. They don't deserve to be accosted or abused."