new auckland

$4.7m spruce-up for homeless hostel

A new era of cooperation between agencies on Auckland's homeless problem has led to funding for a desperately needed spruce-up of the James Liston Hostel in the city, which gives rough sleepers a roof over their heads and helps them into accommodation. 

At present, that roof leaks, to the extent that paddling pools are used to catch the water during storms, and the windows are in danger of falling out. 

The Auckland Council has put in $2 million towards a $4.7m refurbishment, and a Housing New Zealand grant has added another $1.6m, which kicks in this week. The hostel needs to find another half a million dollars to finish the job, but it hopes to start work in a few weeks time. The plans have been drawn and contracts are on the verge of being signed. 

The building in Freeman's Bay hasn't really been maintained since it was built in the 1970s. The refurbishment will add another five beds to cater for 48. 

At the helm of the James Liston board is Dame Diane Robertson, who left the Auckland City Mission after 22 years only to leap back into the sector on a voluntary basis. "I've always been quite committed to providing housing and it didn't eventuate at the Mission, so in one sense I feel obligated to get James Liston's accommodation up to standard," she says. 

The aim is to make it nicer ("the shower block is like something out of an old boarding school"), safer and more secure, for both residents and staff.  "We have people who have been living on the streets who have addictions, mental health issues and challenging behaviours." Alarms and cameras will be installed and it will be cleaner and better ventilated. 

When she says "cleaner" she doesn't mean smelling of disinfectant, as it does now. Getting away from that institutional - and cold - feeling is all about respect for those staying there, and for staff. Over the years the staffing has risen from perhaps just one or two live-in managers, to 12 people helping ease rough sleepers into a better life. It is no longer enough just to find them a place to rent - they need to be checked on to make sure they are washing their dishes, putting the rubbish out - and not lighting fires in the middle of the living room. 

Staying at the hostel is a chance to make sure they attend welfare and health appointments. No drugs, alcohol, or sex offenders are allowed. The longest anyone can stay is 12 weeks, but the aim is to get them out in half that time. 

While the renovations are going on, Housing New Zealand has allocated the hostel 14 beds at the nearby Greys Ave apartments which are due to be demolished. 

Increased numbers of visibly homeless people on the streets have been the trigger for extra funding and extra cooperation between agencies in this area. Dame Diane describes the council grant as an "incredible contribution", which has been allocated from city centre funds with the backing of business. The stream it's been funnelled through is quite a departure from the norm, the result of work by council staff who have been looking at the issue for a long time, and the desire of shop owners to do something about rough sleepers. "There's an appetite to support this venture." 

Dame Diane says the grant is the key to gaining more funding, as a lot of organisations say they will chip-in only when others match their donations. "Fundraising can take a very long time when you are collecting it in $10,000 lots - the roof alone will cost $400,000.

"Traditionally there has been very, very little funding in the (housing) sector for emergency accommodation, but the need for it has increased rapidly. The government probably over the last four years has started to put money into the sector," says Dame Diane. "Rough sleepers on the street are a visual representation of poverty and homelessness but it's not the whole picture. You don't see the people living in their cars; overcrowded situations; you don't see the sofa surfing that goes on.

"On the other side of that you have a severe housing shortage so even when you bring people in here you have a job to find them a permanent home. It's just getting harder .. a lot of these people have poor tenancy histories or they have a criminal record; they may have mental health issues. So for many landlords if they have a choice of tenants, these people are not going to go to the top of the list."

Dame Diane says the answer to the emergency accommodation crisis should be found "way, way, way before" it's needed - so people don't fall out of the system in the first place. "Every sector - education, health, mental health - needs endless amounts of money. 

"By the time they get to us, the damage has been done." 

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