Friday, March 17, 2006

Cathy Casey: Kicking homelessness for touch

The 2011 Rugby World Cup is a chance to show off everything that is great about Auckland city. There has been much talk about the need to upgrade key infrastructure, including Eden Park, rail transport and the city's motorway network. We also need to improve our social infrastructure.

The World Cup is not the reason for us to address homelessness but is an opportunity to set ourselves targets. A census of the city's homeless population found that up to 300 people can be sleeping on the streets of the CBD on any one night. That's an issue that cannot be ignored.

The reasons are numerous and complex. Auckland City Council commissioned Gravitas Research to look at the issue, and its report highlighted the need for a comprehensive co-ordination of services for homeless people.

It also pointed out that rough sleepers often have complex needs, especially in the areas of mental health and drug and alcohol addiction.

The often-touted approach of "clearing the streets" is naive and ineffective. This approach merely sweeps the problem under the carpet and does not provide a long-term solution. We need a compassionate response that meets the needs of the city's homeless.

The council has developed a Homelessness Action Plan, in which the council will work with partners in the not-for-profit sector to improve service delivery for homeless people. The council aims to ensure greater co-ordination between social service agencies providing for the homeless.

The council will also facilitate the development of better outreach services for homeless people.

This will ensure that rough sleepers get the help they need so that sleeping on the streets is not their only option.

The council will look at its own response to homeless people in public spaces. Council staff, such as city ambassadors and parks staff, will be trained at how best to help homeless people in public areas.

Rather than just moving them, council staff will know about the services available to provide help to homeless people.

The council has committed $135,000 over three years as part of this much-needed first step. However, the resources in Auckland pale in comparison with those set aside to tackle homelessness in other major cities.

The Queensland State Government and the Brisbane City Council have shown real dedication in working together to address homelessness by committing $236 million over four years to assist the state's 20,000 homeless people.

To comprehensively address the issue in Auckland and nationally will require a commitment from central Government as New Zealand has no legislation covering homelessness.

This is despite New Zealand signing up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing.

The covenant also states that all appropriate means, including legislation, should be used to ensure that right.

It is high time the Government took this commitment seriously and enacted legislation on homelessness.

Local authorities in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have been struggling with this issue and it is time our counterparts in the Beehive acted to give councils greater direction and power.

A clearly defined legislative and policy framework would ensure this vulnerable sector of our society is properly provided for and would enable local bodies to apply a consistent approach.

Having adequate provision for homeless people in the long term will ensure that Auckland and New Zealand are genuinely ready for the international spotlight in five years' time.

* Councillor Cathy Casey chairs Auckland City Council's Community Development and Equity Committee.

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