New Zealand’s emergency housing system violates human rights, investigation finds

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New Zealand’s emergency housing system that temporarily places homeless people in motels violates human rights, with residents reporting dirty and unsafe environments, an investigation has found.

The report released by the Human Rights Commission on Wednesday included what it called “shattering” testimonies from people living in emergency accommodation. He said that while the intention to house people was good, the system was in some cases exacerbating problems and trauma.

One family described their motel accommodation as “absolutely disgusting with holes in the walls, vomit and food all over the walls, moldy curtains affecting [their child’s] asthma.”

Related: New Zealand’s homeless have been taken off the streets, but the crisis continues

The report found that the government’s emergency housing system breached three human rights obligations, including that motel accommodation did not meet decent housing standards as it was often dirty, unsafe or in poor condition; that the government’s decision to exclude emergency housing customers from protection under the Residential Tenancies Act was a “serious and continuing breach”, as well as a failure to put in place Other Liability Provisions.

Homeless New Zealanders are living longer than ever in emergency accommodation in motels, with some staying in what is meant to be short-term accommodation for months or even years.

The use of motels for emergency accommodation started in 2016, under the previous national government. It was meant to be a stopgap measure, but as the country’s housing crisis worsened, the need for private motels grew. In 2020, when international borders were closed due to Covid-19, the government used newly empty motels to keep people off the streets as the country was locked down.

Today there are more than 26,000 people waiting for social housing, nearly 21,000 more than five years ago. Nearly 9,000 live in emergency accommodation, with Maori making up 60% of them. The Guardian spoke to tenants in September – some of whom had been living in motels for more than two years – about the consequences of living in such accommodation.

“An emergency housing system must uphold basic human rights standards, be accountable to those it serves and help people exit homelessness,” said Paul Hunt, the chief commissioner. to human rights.

“Yet these features are lacking in parts of our emergency housing system and constitute a violation of the human rights of those it is meant to help.

“We heard from young people who felt so unsafe living alongside adults in emergency accommodation that they resorted to or went back to living on the streets,” Hunt said.

“We also heard stories of children who are now two or three years old and have only ever lived in a motel room.”

A former resident said he had to live with his child in a car for four to six weeks. “Someone was stabbed in my halfway house and I asked for a transfer. It was refused and I was told to either stay in this house or move out,” they said.

Others said they felt threatened by motel management and other guests, some of whom had significant mental health and addictions needs.

The report acknowledged historic decisions by previous governments that had contributed to the system – including the depletion of the social housing stock in the 1990s and 2010s, which led to a shortage of decent homes.

The commissioner also highlighted the “very significant efforts” the government has made over the past five years to provide more equitable housing, such as a $3.8 billion housing acceleration fund, legislative changes to improve conditions for tenants, the National Maori Housing Strategy and the establishment of healthy house standards.

But he said it was time the government phased out the use of private motels to provide emergency accommodation, for a new system to be designed with Maori needs at the fore.

“An updated and unified emergency housing system should pay particular attention to the rights, well-being and needs of homeless children and young people,” he said.

On Tuesday – before the report was published – the government announced it would accept 10 actions recommended in a separate review by the housing and social development ministries to improve emergency housing.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the review confirmed there were not enough homes being built in the right places, at the right prices or in a way that meets people’s needs.

“It is time to reset the system and improve the way people get into emergency accommodation, the way they are supported during their stay, to ensure that they have good quality accommodation and increase support to help them get out.”

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