The Oasis Network emergency housing and social support service, based in Naenae, accommodates 15 homeless men.
Aged from 18 through to their 60s, all 15 have travelled different paths to Oasis. But all have in common the harsh fact that their lives are in deep crisis and they have no home or the family and friend support networks most of us take for granted.
Around half are managing low to moderate-level mental health conditions or undergoing treatment for addiction, and a few teenagers arrive due to family dysfunction or break-up. Some clients have endured trauma since childhood and a few, until relatively recently, had careers or owned businesses until redundancy, bankruptcy, bereavement or relationship breakdowns broke their ability to cope.
With private rents in Lower Hutt’s low-income neighbourhoods having risen 20-26 per cent in the past three years and high demand for limited emergency and social housing, parents and their children understandably get priority for housing. Single males sit at the bottom of the list, according to a number of social service organisations Hutt City Council has spoken to.
As a result, some men have little option other than living in vehicles or sheds or on the street. While they are a minority of the city’s homeless population, they are visible in our communities and have become the popular image of homelessness.
Despite the steep challenges facing Oasis and its clients, the organisation has placed more than 130 men in settled long-term accommodation since it started its emergency accommodation service two years ago.
It is the only organisation in Lower Hutt housing and supporting homelessness single men. The service was the brain child of Naenae resident Matey Galloway who, with his family, played a central role in establishing and running it.
Living in a hole
Oasis social worker Kathy Douds says the common stereotypes of her clients are a barrier to them getting stable accommodation. Those stereotypes are also inaccurate.
“They come from all walks of life, and the belief that it’s a fun life, lying around and getting handouts is just plain wrong. It can be a miserable, lonely and frightening existence.”
Until fairly recently, former Oasis client Robert had spent the best part of three years living in his car in an out-of-the-way spot in Petone. Two of his closest neighbours slept rough in nearby bush and a third in a hole he’d dug under a vacant building.
Having worked as a support worker in the mental health and addiction treatment sector, Robert now volunteers at a Petone food bank and provides guidance and support to those struggling to cope with living rough.
He says the reasons single men on benefits or low-incomes end up on the streets are many and varied but rapidly rising rents for the often unhealthy and unsafe rentals at the bottom end of the market is a key reason.
Another important contributor to street homelessness was the closure of most psychiatric hospitals by the 1990s and moving the bulk of patients into the community for care – a move that continues to fail patients too ill to manage their day-to-day lives, Robert says.
“Street people are an in-your-face reminder of something wrong with this country – an in-your-face reminder that some of the big decisions in this country aren’t well thought out,” he says.
“The good thing about Oasis is they’re the only (organisation) dealing with a complex and difficult problem – they’ve stepped up to the plate and everybody should be thankful for that.”
One Lower Hutt mental health professional, who asked not to be named, says locating, let alone successfully treating and managing her homeless patients, is “near impossible”.
A dire shortage of organisations like Oasis in the Hutt Valley, capable of supporting homeless patients, means their physical and mental health sharply declines while living on the street, and they often end up back in hospital acutely unwell.
“It’s about the outcomes for these people. I mean that they can be functioning out there at very low levels, constantly facing physical and mental harm.”
Ending street homelessness
With homelessness in Lower Hutt rising in the past 12 years, and it now taking longer to house those without a home, Council’s recently adopted homelessness strategy aims to end persistent homelessness, and one priority is ending street homelessness.
Oasis housing coordinator and social worker Henare Parker says ending street homelessness is feasible if there’s the collective will to do it. “It might sound like I’m hitting for the fence but absolutely it is.”
He says, apart from the need for more affordable long-term accommodation, there are two major challenges to overcome.
Prejudice is a fact of life for homeless people and for those managing a mental health condition it’s so much greater, particularly when trying to secure rental accommodation. While private landlords are routinely resistant to consider homeless men as tenants, a handful of landlords are now starting to see Oasis clients as viable tenants.
The other key challenge is helping clients readjust to settled living and sustain their new way of life. Oasis prepares them for housing applications, helps arrange automatic payments for rent and bills and provides basic furniture, bedding and kitchenware to create a home that the client will value and protect. It also provides support during the first six months of the tenancy to ensure clients with higher needs are coping, managing their budgets and being good tenants.
“So this problem can be solved with some fairly simple planning,” Henare says. “But the crucial thing will be to have that wraparound support for higher needs clients alongside housing, and it will need to be a concerted effort among (social service) providers. All providers seem to agree that we don’t have that service infrastructure we need yet.”
After years trying, Robert now has his own Housing New Zealand flat, largely thanks to Citizens Advice Bureau Petone chairperson Sharon Grant’s advocacy.
Asked what the best thing is about having his own home, he said: “Brother, I got my privacy back.”
- As part of Hutt City Council’s homelessness strategy, in March this year Hutt City Council voted to introduce an action plan to prevent homelessness and improve access to housing for those who are homeless. A decision on funding the action plan will be made at a Community Plan Committee meeting on 11 June at 9.30am.