Emergency housing: Woman beaten unconscious, children 'put at risk'

Those at the coal face say there's not enough oversight, with families mixed in with gang members.
Those at the coal face say there's not enough oversight, with families mixed in with gang members. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jane Patterson for RNZ 

Distressing revelations about life in emergency housing continue to emerge, including a woman being punched unconscious by another motel resident, putting her in hospital.

The 49-year-old grandmother was left so terrified she refused to go back into any form of shared living.

Those at the coal face say there's not enough oversight, with families mixed in with gang members, and many places rife with crime and intimidation.

And there are further warnings about the significant potential for abuse and sexual violence, with one Auckland charity saying women escaping from an abusive home can end up going back after staying in emergency housing, because at least "they know that violence".

Severe concern too about the plight of children; in some cases taken out of school, cut off from their communities and confined to their motel room by their parents because it's too dangerous to venture outside.

High risk of abuse and sexual violence

In late 2019 the woman was attacked by another resident in a motel providing emergency housing in South Auckland.

Her daughter described how she was beaten up and left unconscious, ending up in hospital for a few days.

When her mother was ready to leave she was too scared to return to emergency housing, and lacking other options, ended up living between two of her other children until a decent house was found.

"She's alright now, she's got her own space," her daughter says.

That case could be just the tip of the iceberg, social services working on the frontline warn.

Jenny Wyber from Auckland family violence charity Shine says women taking the courageous step to leave a violent relationship and ending up in emergency housing are especially vulnerable.

"They get put into an environment where there are gang members, and people with drug and alcohol issues; that risk of assault increases for them."

That presents many with a choice, she says: "Do I stay here where it's completely unsafe for me, or do I go back to my partner where at least I know that violence?"

"So yeah, it's a concern, says Wyber," and I think if I talked to my team at Shine, they would say they're seeing an increase."

Through Family Works she also deals with children - many of whom she says are put in motels well away from where they used to live, separated from their schools and communities. At last count there were 4000 children in emergency housing, with a thousand being there for up to a year.

Wyber says many are in places that are not just unsuitable, but are dangerous.

"Our parents are saying, 'we can't leave them outside, because it's not safe, because there are people who are drinking or there are drugs going on or gang members are pulling up.

"So parents are doing their best to keep their children safe, but keeping them inside the motel room", all of which will have ongoing consequences for their development and wellbeing.

"They just want to be children and how do we allow that to happen?

"While families are being put into motels where there are gang affiliations and drugs and alcohol, and significant mental health issues, we're taking their childhood away."

Motel 'money-tree'

Not only is emergency housing creating alarm about the welfare of many residents, but it's costing taxpayers a significant amount of money - or a "motel money tree" as described by one motelier.

The daily $1 million bill is split between emergency housing - about $900,000 a day and $100,000 for transitional.

While short term and quickly accessible motel rooms are required to get people in urgent need somewhere to stay, officials laid out the case last year against continuing their use in such high numbers: emergency housing costs more, it only provides the accommodation and none of the extra services needed to help residents with the likes of budgeting or addiction, and the government is less able to monitor exactly what's going.

A Rotorua motelier, speaking anonymously for fear of backlash, refuses MSD clients to focus instead on business and tourism clientele.

"As sad and rude as it may sound," she says, "they're often return guests and we can't allow them to come to accommodation that has drugs, fighting, abuse, and the police there all the time".

However, other moteliers are "showing signs of greed now because the payments are phenomenally high", she says, with motels initially being being offered $119 per night, per unit but now up to $400 a night.

"If you've got a motel with 20 units and they've never had this kind of business before, they're laughing all the way to the bank, it's a motelier's paradise in Rotorua."

It appears the government's approach is "simply to sign a cheque and look the other way", National's Nicola Willis says. She is "pleading with ministers to take this situation seriously".

"Children are being put at risk. If you're going to pay all of this money take some responsibility for what is going on in these places."

Official figures show just how much of an increase there's been over the years.

The amount spent in the December 2017 quarter was $6,566,960 on just over 2000 clients.

In the same quarter in 2020 that had skyrocketed to $82,531,775 for 8,500 clients. About half of the money is being spent on families with children.

Who is responsible for making sure it's safe?

The Social Development Ministry (MSD) hands out emergency housing grants.

When asked who checks on the safety and suitability of emergency housing, Minister Carmel Sepuloni said "those who supply emergency accommodation to clients are expected to meet all the relevant regulatory standards imposed by regulatory authorities".

In a statement the ministry says those authorities include local councils, and other agencies, including Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and they're "responsible for these regulations".

Sepuloni acknowledges ministers could look again at that relationship between government and emergency housing providers.

"None of us want to see any of those awful scenarios unfold ... one of the things with regards to administering the emergency housing special needs grant is that because it is on a case by case basis, there's no actual kind of long term contractual arrangement in place with any of the providers.

"Contractual arrangements is something that HUD [Ministry of Housing and Urban Development] does have for transitional housing ... and I think that's a conversation that we do need to have," Sepuloni says.

Information about incidents of family harm, criminal activity or social disorder is "not centrally recorded", she says, and any incidents or risks "brought to the Ministry's attention" are managed on a case-by-case basis.

"We do have regular contact with emergency clients, but if it's not regular enough, or if they need to inform MSD of any situation that's unsafe, then they need to do that so we can look for alternative accommodation," Sepuloni says.

The choice of motel is sometimes limited by location and availability, she says, and that does mean "it's very difficult sometimes to find the appropriate option".

"Moteliers aren't social workers," National MP Nicola Willis says.

"If the government wants to make sure that children and families are safe, they should be contracting for that.

"It's a terrible waste of taxpayers money to be spending up to $450 a night on motel rooms, when that isn't even providing any support."


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