Coronavirus: COVID-19 response has helped tackle homelessness in New Zealand - Megan Woods

The country's COVID-19 response has proved beneficial in terms of tackling homelessness in New Zealand, says Housing Minister Megan Woods, as many notorious rough-sleepers nationwide have finally been put in temporary housing.

"Some of the agencies we've been working with, who of course know most of the rough-sleepers in the area, have been trying for years to get some of these people into accommodation. It's during COVID we've managed to achieve that, so we certainly don't want to lose those gains that we've made in really tackling homelessness in New Zealand," Woods said in an interview with Newshub.

Her comments follow Sunday's announcement that the Government will spend more than $100 million to house the homeless in motels until they can be moved to more permanent housing.

"The money we've announced today is to pay for the additional motels that we've bought on over the last few weeks to house some of our most vulnerable people [sic]. There's been a real focus on people who've been rough-sleeping and people that have been in night shelters, where it wasn't possible to do physical distancing that would keep them safe," Woods explained.

The $107.6 million is in addition to the money announced pre-COVID-19 in February, focused on creating additional, transitional housing for some of New Zealand's most vulnerable people.

"This will work very much alongside the plans we had pre-COVID... it allows us to stay in contact with the people we've managed to house over the COVID period to keep them safe, and ultimately work with people to get them to a position where they can hopefully sustain a tenancy over time," Woods said.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development has been working closely with non-Government organisations, including community and transitional housing providers and iwi housing providers, Woods said, in order to best identify the areas of need. 

Since the alert level system was introduced in response to the pandemic, the Government has paid for more than 1100 additional motel units for New Zealand's homeless and rough-sleepers. The new funding now brings this total to 1600 units.

"We've brought on 1114 additional motel units and we're looking to keep that supply, and a few more, on into the short-term and immediate future. So 1200 of the units will stay on stream until April 2021 [and] an additional 400 until July this year. That gives us time to ramp up our building of transitional houses and continue the momentum we have achieved in our public housing build," Woods said.

The $100 million will sit neatly alongside the Homelessness Action Plan announced in February, which committed to providing 1000 additional transitional places by the end of 2020. 

The money will also go towards funding for the Sustaining Tenancy Programme, the Housing Minister confirmed, as well as for providers working to get people to a position "where they might be able to survive in the private rental market".

"We see this as additional, but sitting very neatly within the vision and strategy we had in place pre-COVID," she said.

Work is already underway to find more permanent housing for those moved to motel units during alert level 4 lockdown.

"As the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the Government's build programme and work with the construction sector will resume to bring on more housing at pace," Woods noted.

As of this weekend, 876 units are housing people and families, who are also being supported with social services. Of the new funding, $31 million will provide wraparound services to support their needs.

Woods acknowledged the importance of all-encompassing support, as many of those housed in the motels have "incredibly complex needs".

"It's not just a case of putting a roof over their head. We need to ensure people have food and the right social support."