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Rough Sleeping dramatically reduced in Hamilton

15 December 2016

At a time when homelessness is high on the national conscience, one city is showing the rest of the New Zealand how a collaborative response can change systems and drive results. Since its establishment in August 2014, The People’s Project in Hamilton has advised, assisted and housed over 800 individuals and families. Among the housed are 78 of the 80 rough sleepers or chronically homeless people identified in the central city in 2014.

Public safety concerns inspired the creation of New Zealand’s first large scale ‘Housing First’ initiative, The People’s Project, and their ambitious goal that there would be  no-one living on the streets or sleeping rough in Hamilton by the end of 2016. The People’s Project is a community collaboration which includes Hamilton City Council, New Zealand Police, Ministry of Social Development, Child, Youth and Family, Housing New Zealand, Department of Corrections, Waikato District Health Board, Midlands Health, Hamilton Central Business Association, Te Puni Kōkiri and Wise Group.

In just over two years, The People’s Project has demonstrated how collaboration across multiple agencies and sectors can make a positive and lasting difference to the landscape of a city. Local Police have reported that inner city crime has reduced, a Hamilton City Council constituents’ survey reported that businesses and the public are feeling safer and, more importantly, almost all of the rough sleepers are in homes they can call their own.

So why has Hamilton been able to achieve what other New Zealand cities are still grappling with?  The answer, says People’s Project leader Julie Nelson, is the community coming together to get behind ‘Housing First’, an internationally proven model which recognises that it’s easier for people to address the issues that lead to homelessness, once they are housed.

“People find themselves homeless or having to sleep rough for many reasons, including debt, mental health and addiction issues, trauma, relationship or family breakdowns and health problems. The Housing First model operates on the premise that people have a basic right to a home and should be treated with dignity and respect.”

The People’s Project adapted the Housing First model for the New Zealand context, coordinating services from a central office in Garden Place. Julie Nelson says it’s not a ‘drop in’ centre for homeless people, but a central hub where the different agencies involved in The People’s Project can work together.

“Our partners and our communities commitment to a collaborative approach, focused on one plan and common goals has led to significant changes for some of our most vulnerable. We couldn’t do this alone. We’ve always said it will take a community wide response. That’s what’s happened and that’s why we have achieved the results we have,” says Ms Nelson.

The team’s focus has been to quickly move vulnerable people into appropriate housing and immediately provide access to the services they need to address the issues that have led to their homelessness.

“When people have a home and access to the help they need, life changes for people. Tenancies are sustained and two years on, we’re seeing people moving into employment,” says Ms Nelson.

Sustaining tenancies is an increasing focus for The People’s Project team and the statistics in Hamilton speak for themselves. Ninety four percent of those housed by The People’s Project, remain in their homes a year or two down the track. Julie Nelson says 75% of those they have helped have found homes in the private rental sector, with local landlords providing vital support by taking a chance on people who may otherwise be excluded from the private market.

The People’s Project has partnered with research teams from both Otago and Waikato Universities. Otago University is investigating the feasibility, impact and economic case for providing housing to homeless people using a Housing First approach. The research will utilise the government’s Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) to evaluate the short, medium and long-term outcome for people and potential government savings in health, welfare, justice, corrections and employment. Waikato University is also working with The People’s Project to measure and assess homelessness in Hamilton and the current community response to it.

Although The People’s Project is pleased with their success so far, Julie Nelson is quick to point out that the transitionally homeless are an emerging issue for the city.

“A lot has changed in the two years since The Peoples Project opened. We have seen dramatic changes in the housing market and as a consequence increased numbers of transitionally homeless families and individuals.”

“What we know is that rough sleepers make up only 5% of Hamilton’s homeless population. The majority of homeless people, around 80%, find themselves transitionally homeless or without a home for a short period of time. It’s this group, sadly dominated by families, that is growing and for many, it’s their first experience of needing social services,” says Ms Nelson.

The priority for The People’s Project now is to continue working with the small number of rough sleepers or chronic homeless who have emerged since their initial head count just over two years ago while preventing more individuals and families from the joining them on the streets.

“We know homelessness is a complex issue, but we also know how to solve it, says Ms Nelson. “Our goal is to work at both ends of the spectrum, from prevention to intervention, before things become desperate. This project has shown what can be achieved when a city works together. Two years on, we are thrilled that more people will be celebrating Christmas in their own homes.”