Politics

Govt officials told to try a little kindness

Welfare officials have received an instruction from on high to be "flexible" and help the poor and homeless who seek special assistance grants this winter.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced $37 million in urgent funding to provide accommodation for the homeless this winter and signalled a broader loosening of the welfare purse strings.

The winter funding was not, she conceded, enough. Where further need was identified the Government would act on it.

"We are telling our social services: 'When people come with need, be flexible. Be flexible. Help them meet their needs. Our support network is there for a reason, so help them'."

This try-a-little-kindness cultural shift is a response to a feeling that under the last government frontline staff felt the need to challenge requests and limit extra entitlements where possible.

"The instruction we have given is, when it comes to special needs grants: 'be flexible, provide for those in need.' That's the kind of culture change we are expecting."

The winter housing announcement had been a priority for the Government since it took office, she said. By winter's end 1500 more places - including motel beds budgeted to cost $8 million, relocatable units and other forms of accommodation - would be available across the country to relieve winter homelessness.

She said motel placements were not the desired solution but the urgency to prepare for winter housing demand meant it would have been irresponsible to have taken them out of the mix, for now.

"No one should be homeless in New Zealand. Our ambition is that no one will be."

The housing package announced today had a nice round headline number of $100 million over this winter and the following four years, just over $60 million being new funding.

Beyond this winter, Ardern and Housing Minister Phil Twyford announced an extra $15 million a year over four years would be in the May 17 Budget for expanding the Housing First programme which community groups initiated and the National government had started funding.

Of that total, $5 million a year would go on ongoing services for 900 households in Housing First in Auckland, Christchurch, Tauranga, Hamilton, Wellington and Lower Hutt. The other $10 million a year would go to adding 550 more households in other regions to the Housing First model.

Ardern said the programme took the chronically homeless directly to long-term accommodation and also intervened to help those with mental health issues, addictions and other complex problems.

Both she and Twyford said the Government was pulling out all the stops to prevent families and children living in cars through winter.

Twyford said: "No one need to live in a car this winter. The Government stands ready and willing to help anyone who needs help with housing."

Part of that preparation amounted to a public appeal for help at the announcement at the Te Puea Marae in Mangere Bridge. "If you know of properties - seasonable housing or rental accommodation - that might be available, please get in touch with [the Ministry of Social Development]," he said.

That accommodation would be needed if the urgent homeless problem required more than the measures covered by the $37 million winter fund.

It would be paid for at market rates - " we not expecting people to donate" - and could come from churches or community organisations willing to assist with land or beds.

"This is part of the contingency if there's a massive surge."

Homelessness - and child poverty - were political flashpoints in the past few winters, with Labour accusing National of denying evidence of a crisis. Te Puea Marae became a symbol of community action when it opened its facilities to feed and house those in need.

Marae spokesman Hurimoana Dennis thanked Ardern and Twyford for government funding for an official to be based at the marae to help its work. "We will support a government that puts its money where its mouth is.... and support a government that has a social conscience."

Ardern told her hosts she had seen the outpouring of public support, including gifts to the marae for those in need, in past years. "That reminded me that there is empathy in Aotearoa."

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