Housing crisis: Children in emergency housing rises 34pc in a year

“Holding pens” and residents treated “almost like cattle” is how one social service provider is describing how children are living in emergency housing in Tauranga.

According to a social support agency, some children are internalising everything, some self-harming. Some are witnessing either gang and family violence, or alcohol and drugs being used at the motels.

Parents were desperately trying to leave the motels for their children’s sake, with many losing hope with nothing available, the agency says.

This comes as the number of children in Tauranga and the Western Bay soars 34 per cent.

There are 624 children in emergency housing in the Bay of Plenty region, a 60 per cent increase on last year.

Of the 624 children, 177 were in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty, according to figures from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) revealed under the Official Information Act.

This was up 34 per cent on the same time last year.

MSD only started recording the household composition in April last year and declined a previous request from the Bay of Plenty Times for the exact numbers.

The ministry acknowledged it had only recently been able to report on the exact number of children.

According to the documents, children may have alternative living arrangements and might not be living in motels the whole time.

Tauranga social service provider Te Tuinga Whanau’s Tommy Wilson said having children and families in emergency housing dotted all of the city made it difficult to offer adequate support, and a centralised location would be better.

He said it was important that work was done with children while in these situations through programmes and bettering their wellbeing, “they had a better chance … at normalcy”.

The service had three motels, 20 houses, and the RSA where clients were given meals. and wrap-around support is provided to all clients.

However, he said motels were the “taniwha in the whare” and weren’t a space where families could feel settled.

“You box them into a cell … that’s where we’re getting all the casualties, the motels are just holding pens and the residents are almost like cattle.”

He said the pandemic had brought out the housing issues, however, he didn’t believe the number of homeless families would continue to rise.

He noted there had been a “flattening out” of emergency housing demand from the agency’s perspective.

However, last week, Tauranga City Council Commission chairwoman Anne Tolley said “we’re going to be falling short” of the 1600 new houses needed each year.

The comments followed SmartGrowth’s approval of a new district-wide Housing Action Plan to address the housing crisis in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty.

According to Trade Me figures, the median weekly rent in Tauranga was $575 in June.

MSD figures reported by NZME earlier this year showed the number of emergency housing grants increased from 369 clients in the 2017/18 financial year to 1281 between April last year and March in the subregion.

Two children, aged 10 and 11, told the Tauranga Salvation Army their motels had no space, they couldn’t get out and play, and they felt cramped or spied on.

They felt happier since recently moving from a motel to transitional housing, corps manager Davina Plummer said.

The mother told the organisation the motel changed the way the children played, restricted them “severely” – including socially – which impacted their mental health, Plummer said.

Motel cooking facilities dictated what families could have or prepare, and being so close to other families increased the risk of exposure to “negative or unsafe” influences, Plummer said.

She said having a roof over families’ heads was an “absolute essential need” however motels were not ideal, with some living in there for two years.

She said it increased the anxiety of the entire family and could create more complex trauma and mental health-related illnesses.

This worsened when the emergency housing was not close to employment or education,and families were forced to commute or change schools.

Family Works Waikato, Rotorua and Taupō area manager Lynne Fairs said some kids were internalising everything, with some self-harming. They were confined to their small motel unit, and witnessing gang and family violence.

The kids told the social workers how scared they felt, with many speaking of the drug and alcohol use they see, as well as seeing and hearing family violence.

“They are scared … It’s happening all around them and they can’t stop it,” she said.

“It’s through no fault of their own that they are in emergency housing, but [parents] often struggle to shield their children from these things that wouldn’t be happening if they were in their own home.”

Rentals were few and far between, reaching “astronomical” prices, and desperate parents were stressed, trying to leave motels.

“Having a home to live in is a very basic need. And for many people, it’s just not an affordable option.

“It seems that once someone goes into emergency accommodation, it is almost impossible for them to get out.”

In the Official Information Act response, MSD stated clients get a dedicated case management service, and they and could be referred to a navigator who helped co-ordinate community, health and government services.

The towns noted were the address provided by clients, and may not be where they were in emergency housing.

According to the response, when a client applies for an emergency housing grant, the ministry records the household makeup. It noted children may have alternative living arrangements and might not be living in motels the whole time.

Whanau Ora Commissioning Agency chairwoman Merepeka Raukawa-Tait said children staying in motels needed specialist services, different to the support services provided for adults.

Schools could be helpful in alerting providers when behaviours that required early intervention began to surface, she said.

She suspected more families would wind up in motels and their stays would be longer with no quick fix.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development previously said a shortage of available land to develop significantly increased rents and put pressure on public and emergency housing.

Tauranga and Rotorua were priority areas in the Public Housing Plan and the Government was also working with communities to understand and respond to supply constraints.

Intensification and opportunities to build more public housing will be possible through recent district plan changes, supported by an urban growth partnership.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Development's aims for Tauranga

• Support Iwi and Māori to develop housing to respond to high proportions of Māori in housing need
• Continue to partner with Iwi and Māori
• Identify where land can be unlocked with advice from the SmartGrowth Partnership
• ‘Shovel-Ready’ funding to improve transport choices and enable intensification in central Tauranga

The Public Housing Plan 2021-2024

Between 430 and 450 extra public homes in the Bay of Plenty were planned for under the Public Housing Plan 2021-2024 – this would total 650 new places since the last housing plan.

Kāinga Ora is also intensifying its efforts in the region to identify opportunities to build new housing to provide more permanent homes.

Addressing decades of under-investment in housing is challenging, won’t be achieved overnight, and requires the commitment of many stakeholders – not just the Government, a spokesman said.

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