Govt accused of not properly screening gang members seeking emergency housing

Author
Newstalk ZB / RNZ,
Publish Date
Thu, 8 Jul 2021, 6:16PM
Reg Hennessey. (Photo / NZME)
Reg Hennessey. (Photo / NZME)

Govt accused of not properly screening gang members seeking emergency housing

Author
Newstalk ZB / RNZ,
Publish Date
Thu, 8 Jul 2021, 6:16PM

The government is relying on people entering emergency housing to tell them whether they are in gangs, rather than using Gang Intelligence Centre information, the National Party says.

Ministers have been facing questions about gang members in emergency housing, sometimes placed next to vulnerable whānau and tamariki.

RNZ has reported several stories of people terrified of the conditions in some accommodation amid commonplace instances of violence, criminal activity and gang intimidation.

Parliament was told by Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni that gang members in emergency housing were not a "huge issue" in regional New Zealand.

At any one time there are about 4000 children in emergency housing - mainly motels - costing taxpayers nearly a $1 million a day.

The motels have no contractual obligations to provide safe and suitable accommodation, MSD doesn't actively monitor instances of violence or family harm, nor do police keep data on crime related to emergency housing.

National leader Judith Collins asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Question Time today why officials were relying on gang members declaring their affiliation on a survey form.

And she she sought a commitment from Ardern "to have no children living in motels with gang members by this Christmas, four years after she took office".

Ardern argued it had been the National government that designed the emergency housing system.

"If the member wishes to criticise the way in which our emergency housing system is operating as it relates to hotels, her government was the one to design it.

"I would point to the fact that there are 43,000 fewer children living in poverty ... I would point to the indexation of benefits, the most significant benefit increase since benefits were established, the fact that we changed the way the tax credit applies, that we established the best-start payment, the reinstatement around the training and incentive allowance.

"Does that mean the work is done? No. We will continue to build houses as fast as we can, to redress the issues that have been building over many decades - including the decade in which that member was in government."

National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston continued the questioning, asking why the government was relying on gang members to self-declare rather than using the intelligence centre's data.

"How can she have confidence children are safe when a May police briefing says there are reports of - and I quote - 'violence, intimidation, public urination, drug deals and gang involvement' at emergency housing that MSD is using," Upston said.

Sepuloni said gang access to emergency accommodation had not been raised as a concern in any way by the regional commissioners. She said the commissioners regularly talked to local police officers.

"There have been instances of all those things, but we can't conflate them into just being with gang members.

"Family violence is an issue that we face inside emergency housing at some times and also in private households, so we can't put this down to gang membership and gang members necessarily accessing emergency accommodation.

"We have not sought out that information that the member is asking for. As I said, we have a self-declare system in place, and that is what we're using at this moment."

She said the government was taking "far more precautions than the previous National government were taking" with setting up the emergency special needs grant, and highlighted the approach taken in Rotorua.

"When the National government implemented this [there were] no wraparound support systems in place, and no regard for whether or not the accommodation was appropriate or suitable."

Sepuloni told RNZ after Question Time MSD was providing more support to people in emergency housing in an effort to make sure they were safe.

While there is a specific plan being rolled out in Rotorua, there is no sign of any fundamental change, anytime soon, to the way it will be run in the rest of the country.

Police are another relevant agency; Minister Poto Williams said they were "currently working with the Ministry of Social Development to develop an understanding of the complex issues surrounding emergency housing across New Zealand".

In response to questions from National's Simeon Brown she said "in particular", they were part of "discussions with the Rotorua Housing Taskforce, made up of central and local government agencies, iwi and NGOs, about how to provide better support and outcomes for people living in emergency housing and their communities", that first began in April.

That would "inform how government supports better outcomes in other areas with high levels of emergency housing", she said.

text by Jane Patterson, RNZ