Drugs and gangs: Problems revealed as more children put in emergency housing

The number of children in emergency housing is growing – and one expert says they’re being exposed to drugs, gangs and disorder.

The situation is leaving nearly 250 children across the region feeling “unwanted”, anxious, with growing trust and mental health issues and falling behind others their age, according to people familiar with the problem.

Ministry of Social Development figures released to NZME under the Official Information Act showed the number of children in emergency housing in Rotorua jumped from at least 227 in June to at least 246 in September.

In Tauranga/Western Bay it increased from at least 157 to at least 169.

But the figures could be higher because the ministry does not record the specific number of children in emergency housing but household composition such as the number of adults with either none, or one or more children.

Data provided by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development showed there were 56 children in transitional housing in the Bay of Plenty in June – eight in Rotorua and 48 in Tauranga/Western Bay.

There could be more though, as the response stated there was a “strong likelihood” 131 birth dates not provided were children.

Transitional housing is short-term accommodation for people who don’t have anywhere to stay and includes support to help them get a longer-term home.

A local advocate says motels are no place for children, while an educator on the front line says the situation is having lasting effects.

Rotorua Intermediate School learning support co-ordinator Dean Henderson said his role was almost entirely spent supporting the growing number of students in emergency housing.

He said while the school did not keep official figures on the number of children at the school in emergency housing, in his experience there was almost a classroom-worth of children.

He said some of those who came to school showed up tired, unprepared, with no stationery, had behavioural issues, and struggled to fit in.

“Quite often [if] there’s been some sort of drama in the hotel complex … they’re really unsettled first thing in the morning.”

He said there was no stability and several students at the school had moved up to four times last year, putting a strain on families.

Henderson said most of his day was spent triaging children’s emotional wellbeing “rather than actual teaching”.

Henderson did school pick-ups because “chronic absenteeism” was one of the biggest issues, and said what he saw “is less than desirable”.

“There are usually other mitigating circumstances as to why they’re in emergency housing. The emergency housing isn’t good, but quite often it’s the end result of something else.”

He’s seen a large gang presence at some motels, they’re run-down, and there’s rubbish, couches and alcohol bottles in the parking lot.

“We know for a fact kids have been offered illegal substances while they’ve been in emergency housing.”

Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency chairwoman and Rotorua Lakes councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait slammed the situation.

“Motels are no places for children. They are not designed for long-term stays. You are just a wall away from another unit and who knows who.”

She questioned who was assessing health, schooling, and job needs; or providing family harm prevention, addiction support services and other safety precautions.

She said the ministries of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Social Development (MSD) both placed vulnerable families into “totally unsuitable family accommodation”.

“MSD say at least it’s better than living in a car or on the street. That is an arrogant and offensive statement,” she said.

“Children will suffer the most because government agencies can only think short-term.”

She said Whānau Ora worked with all the families and providers to find long-term solutions, liaising with families to help them determine their own priorities and needs and designing solutions together.

“Providers know the mental health problems that surface for children living in unsuitable housing. Motels are a harmful living environment for young children. Families must not be left there indefinitely.”

MSD Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant acknowledged a motel was not ideal for families with children, and said the ministry’s role was to stay in touch with families, understand their needs, connect them to support and help them navigate services.

“Many parents are doing their best in these difficult circumstances, and are responsible and loving parents.”

He said millions in government funding went to a range of non-government agencies in the region yearly, and a flexible funding package was available to help families with children with the extra stresses and costs of living in emergency housing.

There are 12 senior case managers specialising in housing in the region and eight navigators who are a consistent point of contact giving one-on-one support.

He said general case managers regularly liaised with clients and externally contracted housing navigators were called in where more intensive support was needed.

In Rotorua, MSD is part of a recently established multi-agency Children in Emergency and Transitional Housing Focus Group.

MSD is a member of Kāinga Tupu – Growing Homes in Western Bay of Plenty, which works alongside other agencies on the homelessness strategy.

MSD and Central Kids have partnered to provide emergency housing navigator services to 40 Rotorua families with pre-school and primary school-aged children.

Lifewise Housing First key worker Gillian Tangi said they’d had several referrals for 17- to 18 year-olds with babies in emergency housing.

She said children in emergency housing may not have a strong family unit or be well supported.

“The trust factor becomes huge for our young people … they can be withdrawn from society,” fuelled by a negative stigma from the wider community.

As they are not of age and do not fit certain criteria, they may be excluded from various services and they “start to feel unwanted”.

Lifewise Rotorua and Bay of Plenty regional manager Haehaetu Barrett said they worked in a collaborative approach with youth services and she was working to introduce Manaaki Rangatahi, the Youth Homelessness Collective, to the city to provide intense wrap-around support.

It would have a focus on youth housing, she said.

Tē Tuinga Whānau Support Services Trust, Whare4Whanau housing co-ordinator and registered social worker Sai Watson-Crooks described homelessness as a symptom, not a cause, with addiction, mental health and domestic violence common factors.

In January, 172 children were either in emergency and transitional housing through the trust, a rise on the 111 at the same time last year.

Many of last year’s families were still with them, and some were closing in on their fourth year.

The children they saw had issues with transience in school, leading to anxiety around ability; behavioural and mental health issues as a result of family violence; family breakdown; and sexualised behaviour.

Ministry of Education sector enablement and support deputy secretary Katrina Casey said families were not required to disclose their housing situation to schools.

However, they knew teachers were best placed to identify children and young people who needed extra support.

“When a child is not attending school they don’t benefit from a safe, healthy and supportive learning environment.”

She said non-attendance was a complex issue and it was tackled with support from attendance services and other groups and agencies.

Some schools use their share of the Budget 2020 $50 million Urgent Response Fund to fund staff home visits, while others use it to provide additional support to whānau to access help from other agencies to overcome attendance barriers.

An Oranga Tamariki spokeswoman said the organisation only became involved with families in emergency housing if a Report of Concern was made.

“Many children are well cared for by their parents or carers in emergency housing, making use of the supports available to them from other agencies.”

The agency provides three programmes relevant to youth homelessness: supported accommodation, teen parent homes, and emergency accommodation and travel assistance.

HUD was asked what was being done to address the housing issue in the region to get families out of emergency housing and if there were plans targeted at families with children.

A ministry spokeswoman said the ministry supported children in a number of ways.

She said transitional housing providers supported families with doctor’s and health visits,MSD visits and helped families gain access to school stationery and uniforms, foodbanks and other social services.

A system of Intensive Case Managers, Navigators and Housing Brokers was implemented to support people in emergency housing, as well as a funding package to help families with children.

These were funded under the Government’s Aotearoa New Zealand Homelessness Action Plan, which also included $9.3m to support the wellbeing needs of children in emergency housing.

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