Covid 19 coronavirus: The upside of lockdown for Wellington's homeless

Natalia Cleland said lockdown had helped to break habits for some of the people they helped in Wellington. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

The national lockdown may have been one of the best things that could have happened for a Wellington man who has been sleeping rough for two decades.

As people around the country stockpiled toilet paper and flour and frantically tried to get set up to work from home, he was allowing a local charity to help him into housing for the first time in years.

It’s not known exactly how long the man had been sleeping rough – though it’s believed to be about 16 to 20 years – but realising the city would be empty of people, facilities would be closed, and cafes would not be handing out their leftover food was what finally encouraged the man to accept the charity’s help.

Four weeks after getting into emergency housing, he was offered a permanent house to live in, and accepted the offer.

It’s just one of the success stories that has come out of lockdown for Downtown Community Ministry (DCM), a Wellington charity that works to support homeless people or those at risk of homelessness.

DCM’s outreach services team leader Natalia Cleland said it was “very satisfying” to help the man into housing after years of building a relationship with him.

“For him I think it was having a toe in and sort of seeing that this wasn’t what he thought it was,” she said.

Now the man visits DCM’s main centre in Lukes Lane, central Wellington, and brings in food, offering to help where he can.

It’s the unexpected positive from lockdown, and he’s not the only one who’s been spurred to change their habits because of the effects of Covid-19.

Cleland and her team walked the city before and during lockdown, finding people who were still rough sleeping and worked to help them into housing of some form.

A survey of 65 of the people DCM helps showed a quarter of them said the best thing to come out of lockdown was having a roof over their heads.

Comments collected in the survey about the positives of lockdown included “not having to worry about where I am going to stay”, “being safe and having a roof over my head”, and “being in a motel has made me feel safe and warm”.

Other positives included people reporting they had stopped gambling over lockdown, or had stopped or reduced their alcohol and drug intake.

“I have given up drinking and have been using my money for much-needing things for my home. Utility bills and food. I always have food now,” one person said.

Cleland said some of the 1000 – and counting – people they had been helping had been able to break unhelpful habits over lockdown, and this demonstrated the benefits of removing things that “enabled” people to remain homeless.

“I think people realised that they didn’t need to be out there,” she said.

Organisations such as DCM existed to help people with the underlying issues behind their homelessness, and provided help dealing with the admin work required to get into housing.

Natalia Cleland (centre) and Chris Huriwai (right) speak to a man in Wellington as part of their outreach efforts in lockdown. Photo / Supplied
Natalia Cleland (centre) and Chris Huriwai (right) speak to a man in Wellington as part of their outreach efforts in lockdown. Photo / Supplied

They provide practical help with banking, budgeting, addressing debt and accessing correct benefit entitlements, and also provide a foodbank that works to identify the reasons for a person’s shortage of food.

Money donated to DCM also helps with things such as funding dental work and distributing cellphones to help keep in contact with people.

Getting people into emergency housing over lockdown had helped with people’s resistance, she said.

“We’ve had example after example of people who were long-term rough sleepers, two decades plus, who realised that actually having a roof over their head wasn’t as bad as they thought it was.”

There was a “complex” range of issues behind why people were reluctant to be housed, including mental health problems, addictions, trauma, as well as a lack of ID, bank accounts and money.

Some also believed they did not deserve a home, or felt it was too difficult to access.

Seeing some of these people accept help into housing was a great feeling, Cleland said.

“What’s really satisfying is seeing people thriving.”

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