Family harm in emergency housing: Motels a ‘toxic environment’, says councillor

Fenton St. Photo / Andrew Warner

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One-third of the 120 family harm calls a week in Rotorua are to emergency housing motels, the council says.

The comments were made by Rotorua Lakes Council community wellbeing deputy chief executive Anaru Pewhairangi at an Operations and Monitoring Committee meeting last week.

A family harm advocate says emergency accommodation is an “incredibly unsafe” place for anyone, especially children.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepoloni says the need for emergency accommodation is not ideal but is better than people sleeping rough in tents or cars.

In the meeting, Pewhairangi, who was the Rotorua police area commander from 2017 to 2019, said in 2018 police would receive about 70 calls for family harm incidents in Rotorua each week.

“Currently there are upwards of 120 family harm incidents per week.”

He said it could be a good sign of increased reporting of family harm, as opposed to an increase in incidents.

“However, one-third of the family harm that’s happening here have come from our [emergency housing motels].”

He said there were “between five and 10” families coming into Rotorua each week with family harm safety plans.

“Those are people who have high-risk, complex needs, coming into our place who, from my police colleagues, do not have any association to Rotorua.”

Pewhairangi said known gang members also resided in the motels, including mixed-use motels, which were shared with tourists.

Housing Minister Megan Woods announced the Government would end the practice of “mixed-use” motels in May 2021.

In the same announcement, Woods said the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development would also take responsibility for contracting motels for emergency accommodation.

In Thursday’s committee meeting, Pewhairangi said contracted and managed sites had “minimal issues”.

He said unmanaged sites appeared to have “the most issues”.

“That would be confirmed by our police colleagues as well.”

Referencing his source as data aggregator Dot Loves Data, he said 86 per cent of crime occurred in high-deprivation areas and 61 per cent of people in Rotorua lived in high deprivation.

He said the council’s safe city guardians and security camera monitoring had “anecdotally” observed the impact of alcohol, anti-social behavior and the visibility of gangs.

Rotorua Lakes Council community wellbeing deputy chief executive Anaru Pewhairangi.  Photo / Stephen Parker
Rotorua Lakes Council community wellbeing deputy chief executive Anaru Pewhairangi. Photo / Stephen Parker

The council was sharing information with the police but Pewhairangi said it was “very clear” Rotorua police were “under extreme pressure” and both the police and the council had experienced an increase in calls for service, he said.

He said the most notable increase had been in issues on Fenton St, and that had not been the case in 2018 when he was area commander.

“Something’s changed here.”

Pewhairangi said a visit from Police Minister Poto Williams – who is also the Associate Housing (Public Housing) Minister – to Rotorua at the end of April had been “encouraging” and he had expressed the need for an “action plan moving forward” from the Government on emergency accommodation and community safety.

In the meeting, councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait said the safety issue was not just for the wider community but also those living in emergency accommodation.

She said it was usually – but not always – the wider community that complained about the issues at the motels, but it was important to remember some were living “day by day” in “quite a toxic environment”.

Rotorua district councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait.  Photo / Andrew Warner
Rotorua district councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. Photo / Andrew Warner

Deputy mayor Dave Donaldson said the family harm callouts to emergency housing motels and other statistics “thoroughly endorses” the council’s “regulatory approach”.

On April 28 the council revealed it had written letters to nine motels in April to discuss compliance with the Building Act, Resource Management Act and Rotorua District Plan.

It means motels will need to let the council know if they will continue as emergency housing providers or return to hosting visitors. If they remain as emergency housing providers, they will need to comply under those laws and policies, or face court action.

Outside the meeting, Rotorua family lawyer and Waiariki Women’s Refuge chairwoman Mihi James said the figure of one-third “definitely” sounded correct based on her experience.

She said many people who left family harm situations had no choice but to go into emergency housing to escape.

“They’re forced to go into a place that’s actually more unsafe.”

She said she had clients who said they would “rather go home and be beaten up every day” because at home they knew their perpetrator.

“It’s better the devil you know.

“Emergency housing is a great risk to anyone staying in there.”

She believed there needed to be emergency accommodation – with appropriate screening in place – specifically provided for people trying to escape family violence.

James said tenants in emergency housing often had serious mental health, drug and alcohol abuse problems.

Rotorua family lawyer and Waiariki Women's Refuge chairwoman Mihi James.  Photo / Andrew Warner
Rotorua family lawyer and Waiariki Women’s Refuge chairwoman Mihi James. Photo / Andrew Warner

“It’s incredibly unsafe, especially for children.”

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepoloni said the ministry provided wrap-around support to families in emergency housing and had family violence co-ordinators that sat at police-led family violence hui.

She said if family harm incidents happened she expected appropriate services to intervene and provide support.

She said moteliers supplying emergency housing were free to decide who they let into units.

“We value the assistance they provide to households in the region who are in need.”

She said the ministry had advised her the majority of Rotorua motels were “not generally mixed-use”, but some motels chose to accept both.

“Ideally, no one in Rotorua would be in housing distress or require emergency accommodation in motels, but successive Governments have not increased the supply of housing. While we are making good strides in this area it will still take time to build the number of houses Rotorua needs.”

She said in the meantime, the Government’s priority was to help those who needed emergency housing while longer-term housing options were explored.

“We understand that motels are not ideal, but it is important that people in housing distress are not left to sleep rough in tents or in cars.

“We are committed to ending the need for emergency housing by building more houses.”

In Thursday’s meeting a Ministry of Social Development report provided to elected members revealed about a third of those staying in emergency accommodation were from out of the district.

Sixty-nine per cent of clients were from Rotorua, while 19 per cent were from surrounding areas such as Kawerau, Taupō and Tauranga. Twelve per cent were from further afield.

Between July 2019 and June 2021, taxpayers paid $24.7 million to 15 Rotorua motels providing emergency accommodation, according to data from the Ministry of Social Development.

The police, Housing Minister Megan Woods and Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi were approached for comment.

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air

Where to get help

If you’re in danger NOW:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbors or friends to ring for you

• Run outside and head for where there are other people

• Scream for help so your neighbors can hear you

• Take the children with you

• Don’t stop to get anything else

• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay.

Where to go for help or more information:
• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nzing

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