Work and Income doing what it can to keep gangs away from kids in emergency housing - Carmel Sepuloni

The Government says it can't force gang members to reveal their affiliations when applying for emergency housing, but it's doing what it can to stop them being housed near children. 

At the end of March there were 4368 children living in emergency accommodation, up from 3795 in June last year. That's despite the total number of households dropping from 4086 to 3987 in that same timeframe.

Kids are staying in emergency accommodation longer too. The number staying there more than a year has increased from 96 in June 2020 to 177 in March. 

"It's not ideal," Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

“We've said over and over again we don't want to see people in emergency accommodation, but we don't have the number of houses that we need because of the failure by previous Governments to build the houses that we need. 

"We've got a building programme that is on track at the moment, but in the interim we still have families that are homeless that we need to provide emergency housing to." 

There have been concerns that many of the kids are being raised in the presence of gang members. 

"The use of motels for emergency housing is putting increasing pressure on police resources - and police are frequently responding to reports of violence, intimidation, public urination, drug deals and gang involvement at emergency housing motels," National Party social development spokesperson Louise Upton told the New Zealand Herald.

"The fact that emergency housing and crime has been identified by police as a major focus for its operational deployment signals how serious this crisis is. The Government must stop placing vulnerable families in motels without adequate support or regard to the risks they are exposed to. Leaving over 4000 children to live exposed to violence, drug use and gangs is an utter disgrace."

Sepuloni said Work and Income can't force a gang member to reveal their affiliation when they apply for emergency accommodation. 

"The question is asked, and then if [the Ministry of Social Development] knows, then they will not put gang members in with families and children, if they know."

gang affiliation box
What the form asks. Photo credit: Ministry of Social Development

The 'Emergency Housing Special Needs Grant form' asks applicants for a range of information, including whether they have any gang affiliations. While the form warns those with pets might have to leave them behind, it doesn't say whether admitting membership of a gang could affect a person's application. 

"When people come in for an emergency housing grant, it is a question that's put to them, but you can't force someone to answer that question," said Sepuloni. "In saying that, MSD has been working hard to make sure that they put people into appropriate accommodation. We're also the last port of call, so we do need to house New Zealanders that come to us - families with children, yes, and in some instances gang members. 

"But of course, MSD needs to work hard to make sure that they're putting people into appropriate accommodation."

Carmel Sepuloni.
Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: The AM Show

One thing they're trialling in Rotorua is "cohorting" - placing groups with similar needs into the same accommodation. Sepuloni said there are plans to roll that out elsewhere too, saying it "mitigates" the risk kids will be placed near gang members. 

The Government's promise is to build 18,000 new public homes by 2024. Sepuloni said while the programme was "absolutely on track", she couldn't put a date on when the use of motels as emergency accommodation would end. 

"It's not one Government's fault, you know. There needed to be houses built to meet the demand and that didn't happen. Now we've got a rigorous building programme underway but we've still got this issue that we're confronting in the interim."