The secret to fixing homelessness in Auckland

by Finlay Macdonald / 05 April, 2017
Photography by Adrian Malloch
Dr Sam Tsemberis founded the Housing First model, which is being rolled out in Auckland this year.

Sam Tsemberis is an expert at getting homeless people off the streets – compassionately. His secret? Giving them a place to live.

It’s 8.30am at a cafe in central Auckland, and one of the city’s street people wanders in. He glances around, clocks the only other people in the place (us), then wanders out and away. Sam Tsemberis has his back to the door so doesn’t notice. What our fleeting visitor couldn’t have known either is that we are discussing his very situation – homelessness – and how to fix it.

Tsemberis, a genial and calm Canadian-born, US-based community psychologist, is here to speak at Auckland Conversations and launch Housing First Auckland, a joint project between government, Auckland Council and several NGOs. Based on a remarkably successful model begun in New York, Housing First does precisely what its name suggests – houses the chronically homeless as a first step towards helping them resolve the deeper causes of their homelessness. Rather than “rewarding” them with a home at the end of that process, the scheme uses a mix of private rentals, Housing New Zealand accommodation or other community housing to help the neediest first, often those with serious mental health and addiction problems.

The results are so persuasive even politicians get it. The two-year Auckland pilot has secured nearly $5 million in central and local government funding to house and provide support services for 472 homeless people. Already the scheme has housed eight “rough sleepers”, with 30 more lined up for assistance. If Tsemberis is right, and previous experience a guide, even in a city experiencing a severe housing shortage there is still a sufficient vacancy rate to meet demand. Furthermore, spending on homelessness and its wider costs will actually reduce. And yes, it does sound almost too good to be true.

Finlay Macdonald: Your Housing First model is almost counter-intuitively simple – do you encounter the same initial scepticism wherever you go?

Sam Tsemberis: Scepticism about being able to house somebody from the street takes a couple of different forms. One of them is a sort of disbelief, like it seems incredible that this person, who looks so disorganised, can succeed in an apartment of their own. So that’s one issue. The other is, more from the conversation you have with the people running homeless services, a perception that there aren’t the apartments available. In every city I’ve worked in, this is a conversation that takes place.

But what about those people who are struggling to find a house, who might perceive a homeless person as jumping the queue?

Yes, that’s right. It pushes against social values and beliefs about who we take care of. We, collectively. Do we take care of you, or do we take care of the person who is mentally ill on the street? So it does put that right on the table.

Which calls for a degree of broad-mindedness at least.

The option is to let the person die on the street, or to agree to help them in some meaningful way.

So how do people respond to that choice?

Well, in public, everyone says it makes sense.

 In private, then, what are the main misconceptions about homeless people in your experience?

The person we see on the street, who is the most visible segment of the homeless population in the public’s mind, comes to represent all homelessness. So there’s a huge misperception there. The majority of homeless people are living in cars, in garages, in caravans – there are so many more homeless people than the one person we see wandering around the streets downtown. In fact, that person can be seen legitimately as representing hundreds of other people who can’t be seen.

There is an acknowledged housing crisis in Auckland, so how do you define homelessness in that context?

We’re talking about the same thing. Homelessness is a crisis in the housing supply. Except that the people we’re talking about don’t have the resources, or maybe the skills or the money or the support from friends and family, to hang in there until they can get a place of their own. And so we see the most vulnerable and disconnected falling to the street.

Another misconception one hears is that they’ve somehow chosen this life.

I think nobody chooses to be miserable and homeless and struggling for survival every day. But I do think some people choose the privacy of the street, compared to the constraints that some programmes offer – get cleaned up, be clean and sober, live in a small space with a lot of other tired, angry, frustrated people. So the choice to be on the street is not a choice to be homeless, it’s a choice to not participate in programmes that are available.

So the Housing First model inverts that problem in a sense.

It works because we say, look, have your own place where you’re private, secure, safe. It’s not that we’re so good at selling it, it sells itself. That’s an option they haven’t heard – they’ve heard, here’s some sandwiches, some tea, blankets – but how about an apartment!

What’s the initial reaction?

They think you’re trying to trick them into going into a shelter somewhere.

What about the reaction when you show them their apartment for the first time?

Well, in every relationship there’s a honeymoon. And I would describe those first few moments as the most joyous. Tears of joy – it’s overwhelming. And to talk to people a few days after, when they’ve slept in a bed, and they tell you that it’s the first time ever they’ve slept through the night, instead of sleeping with one eye open. It’s the first time ever they’ve woken up in the morning and can remember a dream. They have those few minutes of peace and reflection – that they can actually eat at a time they want, watch a TV station of their choosing. Because for years they’ve been in a public space where they control nothing. It’s a tremendous moment.

Tsemberis in Auckland.

Do people sometimes struggle to adapt to a fixed environment?

It’s not so much of a problem. I think what people don’t realise about a person who’s homeless, who you walk right by quickly and mostly look the other way, is that a homeless person is managing an incredibly complicated life every single day. From the minute they wake up, [they’re thinking] where am I going to pee without getting arrested, you know? Where can I get something to eat? Where am I going to leave my stuff if I have to go inside somewhere so it’s not stolen? What time does this kitchen serve lunch and how am I going to get there? I’ve got no money for a bus. It’s exhausting, but there’s a tremendous amount of effort and skill involved in living a life with nothing. So for that person, who’s managing all that with no walls around them, to move into an apartment, it’s a piece of cake. It’s not like they need to develop skills for living indoors when they’ve been living in the wild. They’ve been managing incredibly well.

What about the neighbours?

Mostly you don’t really notice it. Most people living downtown are quiet, especially the vulnerable, they’re more withdrawn and shy than rowdy. If you were doing a time lapse on the front door of that building, you’d see someone go in with layers of clothes and few bags, then when they’ve slept and washed, got new clothes and a key in their hand, you would not be able to tell which tenant it was.

So freed up from the stress of homelessness they can begin to move on.

That’s how it works. The dramatic change is ending the homelessness. But after the honeymoon is the inevitable reality of life. Which is, I’m still completely poor, still have terrible struggles with addiction, I’m still depressed, still have not made up with my family. So, it’s like, I’m housed – and that’s not insignificant in any way – but people adjust you know? Just like everybody adjusts when they get a raise. You know, you think, my God I’m going to be rich, and the next month it’s like you’re still always $20 short. How does that happen? It’s human life, and it’s the same for anyone – but at least you now have the potential ability to start thinking about things.

And you figured the model worked pretty quickly right?

Yes, because people were doing well right away. Not everybody – like the first night these two guys went into the same building, and in the middle of the night one guy sold crack to the other guy. And basically after he’d spent all of his money, which wasn’t much, the other guy took all his furniture too. So I thought, what are we in for? I wanted everyone to just go and live happily ever after, not chaos. So it came with surprises all over the place. But for the most part, because we kept data on how many people stayed in an apartment after a year – 84 percent – we thought we were onto something.

How crucial was that data in winning over the sceptics?

When we got the researchers involved, they were looking at all aspects of pre- and post-housing data, which brought out the cost thing. People were not aware that these homeless people were costing a fortune to the care services – until they were housed. The housing programme was cheap. People stopped going to jail, to detox. It was huge. And that made the argument even more compelling to that group not driven by the humanity of the thing – the fiscally conservative, who were not happy about giving apartments to drug users, but pleased to be saving the money.

Did that also help break the moralistic assumption that housing should be a reward for sobriety, not a starting point?

Totally. You needed as much ammunition as possible, absolutely.

I was in the US recently, and the homeless situation was as evident as ever.

Yes, and the numbers are related to much larger economic forces … Income disparity in the US is almost three times the income disparity in New Zealand. And if you look across the globe, income disparity is actually correlated to the number of homeless people they have. So, it’s capitalism. The bigger the fabric of privatisation and government abdicating commitment, it creates casualties. And what we’re seeing are the casualties.

We worry about that wealth gap here too.

The numbers here are small relative to other big cities in the world. So that’s great, because it’s still manageable. That [Housing First Auckland] happened is incredible, because it was actually a ground-up initiative … It’s a commendable example of advocacy working.

The difference in Auckland perhaps is that we have a significant indigenous population with distinct cultural expectations – does that affect your model?

The intervention itself is kind of a western intervention, but the principles are largely international. Housing is a basic human right. Self-determination driving the clinical process sits well with everybody. The fact that the majority of people here who are homeless are of Mˉaori descent is going to have consequences. I don’t know if the individual apartment model is the right housing intervention for this group, who might want to live with cousins or families. The language, the ethos, the connectedness, is very strong – and that’s a plus. The loneliness of the independent apartment is actually a liability in the model. So the culture here of connectedness is a plus. But it will challenge the model in terms of finding the right kind of housing.

But you’re confident it’s adaptable?

Yes, the principles remain the same. The actual operational pieces are adaptable, depending on where you are and who you’re working with. 

Housing First is supported by Affinity Services, Auckland City Mission, Lifewise, LinkPeople, and VisionWest. All of them welcome donations.


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