Stories of black mould, privacy breaches in emergency housing shared

Source: Radio New Zealand

The Human Rights Commission says the government-funded emergency and transitional housing system has potentially breached human rights.

Emergency housing motel accomodation.

By Sam Olley of rnz.co.nz

After TVNZ exposed substandard accommodation in Rotorua, the commission put a call out on social media, wanting to hear about experiences of emergency and transitional housing around the country.

The commission's housing inquiry manager Vee Blackwood told RNZ that 33 parties had contributed so far and their stories were "distressing".

"People have talked about the fact that their transitional accommodation has such severe black mould issues that their doctor has said to them, 'your child can't keep living in this house, it's causing them hospitalisation'."

Blackwood said some people had reported that "living in emergency accommodation felt worse than jail" and that instead of feeling protected by security guards, they felt "constantly watched and surveilled" by guards asserting power.

Blackwood had also received reports of "people's privacy being really seriously breached" and the overall living conditions leading to a "really serious mental health crisis".

"We've heard from advocates who have advised that the clients they're supporting have, in some instances, had serious suicidal thoughts, which is hugely concerning to us."

READ MORE: Undercover report: Rotorua's emergency housing crisis exposed

Emergency and transitional housing tenants pay 25 per cent of their income towards their accommodation, but they can't go to the Tenancy Tribunal like rental tenants.

Blackwood was concerned there was currently no obvious complaints resolution process for emergency and transitional housing users, and "this creates a serious disadvantage".

"It also does potentially breach the human right to remedy," Blackwood said.

"The important thing is that they [emergency and transitional housing clients] should have recourse to justice when their rights are being breached, and they are being treated with dignity. And we're concerned that that's not what's happening here."

'I just had no trust'

Dunedin woman Olive was one ex-emergency housing client who had shared her story with the commission in the past month.

She told RNZ last year she was evicted with just a few hours notice to pack her bags.

For privacy reasons, RNZ cannot divulge the reason for being kicked out.

But Olive resorted to living in a car, and then a shed, for nine months, until she recently found a home.

"There's no floor [at the shed], it's just gravel. It's made of freezer panels. There's no running water. There is no showering or washing facilities."

On weekends, her primary-school-aged son stayed with her.

They would shower at the closest swimming pool or friends' houses and collect water from public taps.

She said the shed was "basically an unsafe environment, but when you've got nowhere to go, you will just survive where you can".

"It gets pretty cold. It's been extremely difficult because it's gravel and dusty."

Whangārei woman Jessica Kaipo [Ngāpuhi] was living in motels last year and earlier this year with her daughter.

She is pleased the Human Rights Commission is scrutinising the system.

"I just had no trust and emergency and transitional housing," she told RNZ.

She said she was evicted after leaving her room messy with vomit in the toilet one day.

Because Kaipo was sick, instead of cleaning her unit immediately, she went straight to the doctor.

"She [the doctor] rushed me straight to the hospital. So I never got a chance to go back to the motel. So when they went and cleaned it that's when they evicted me, thinking I'd left the bed messy and other things.

"I just felt like it wasn't fair. It wasn't like, in a shambles. I was just unwell that day."

Kaipo was working full-time, she just couldn't find a home, so needed emergency housing, and felt "very hurt" when she learned of her eviction while in a hospital bed.

"I had nowhere to go. And I had no energy, I was just so sick, to even go back to the motel to pick my stuff up."

In a statement, the Ministry of Social Development said staff helped Kaipo into another motel after the eviction.

The ministry's housing manager Karen Hocking said emergency accommodation suppliers were commercial businesses that set their own rules.

"In general most of our accommodation suppliers are supportive and understanding of our clients."

She said the emergency housing system was being reviewed, and this will include feedback from agencies about how to better support clients and improve the quality of their accommodation.

"If a client has concerns about their privacy and safety where they are staying, they should get in contact with us immediately."

In a written statement, Acting Housing Minister Peeni Henare [Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi] said the newly released draft Code of Practice for Transitional Housing proposed independent dispute resolution for clients, and the final version was due to be rolled out next year.

"The new Code of Practice will seek to ensure consistency in the approach taken by providers to the process for an eviction," he said.

Last month, RNZ reported the average stay in emergency housing] - which is designed to only last a week - had grown to more than 20 weeks, and some stays have extended to two years.

Transitional housing is designed for longer stays up to 12 weeks while people find a permanent home, but data provided to RNZ show some people have lived in transitional housing for up to five years.

The Human Rights Commission still wants to hear from current or former clients of emergency and transitional housing for its housing inquiry.