Housing First Ōtautahi marks five-year milestone

Five years on from the service’s launch in 2018, Housing First Ōtautahi has expanded and evolved, overcoming challenges and adapting to provide the best support for people experiencing long-term homelessness in our city.

Having housed over 250 people during this time and now with 30 team members supporting 261 Kaewa (clients) both in housing and on the waitlist, the service has achieved countless positive impacts for some of our city’s most vulnerable people.

“I’m proud that Housing First is a recognised name in Ōtautahi now, and that it’s well respected,” says Housing First Manager/Kaiwhakahaere Nic Fleming. “I’m proud of the Kaewa that are housed and remain to be housed and those that we support. I’m proud that people want to work here, and want to stay.”

The organisational culture is of particular importance to the team due to the challenging nature of the work. Frequent team-building activities and strong organisational values help to nurture a supportive environment. “It’s important that we allow our staff to be themselves in the workplace; they can cry and be who they need to be without being judged,” says Nic.

“We take the good with the bad. The Kaewa inspire our culture, because of the stories they tell and the lives they lead, which requires us to adapt to be who they need us to be.”

“You have to have passion for this job,” says Pou Whakarae/Senior Manager Anania Tawhi. “You have to come into this job not for the money but for the people. The culture is just laughter, it’s about aroha.”

Reflecting on the past five years, Anania is proud of the service’s bicultural journey. “That’s something I’m pretty proud of, having the opportunity to implement Te Ao Māori views into the organisation. We do karakia and waiata every morning; it’s about how you start your day and making sure you start it right.”

The organisation has faced many challenges over the years that have forced it to adapt, but none more so than Covid-19 and the national lockdowns. “It was a crazy time, 12-hour days, phone calls every second of the day, driving around picking people up off the street,” says Nic.

“It was a huge changing point for us. It brought on board a lot more Kaewa than we were expecting, and with that came the need to recruit more staff,” says Anania.

Over this time, Keyworkers supported Kaewa in motel accommodation, dramatically changing the nature of their role. “Our staff suddenly became emergency housing staff, adding this to their role which was huge,” says Nic. “They adapted in the way we needed them to which was amazing.”

There have been many lessons learned along the way about the realities of long-term homelessness. “When we started we had mostly males and a few females,” says Nic. “Now 25% of our Kaewa are females and we have around 30 families. I never thought we’d have families, I never thought kids would live on the streets, or be couch-surfing. We’re starting to have more conversations about how we can try to stop the cycle of homelessness in those children.”

The ongoing support and funding from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MHUD) has enabled the Housing First service to evolve and adapt over time as different needs have arisen. “I have great respect and gratitude for MHUD funding something that allows us to support people on a long-term basis,” says Nic.

Looking forward to the future, the team have short-term and long-term goals. “Our first main goal for this year is to use community integration principles to better support Kaewa once they’re housed to overcome isolation and phobias associated with living in a house. Second is harm reduction; we’re working on further upskilling our team in motivational interviewing techniques to support Kaewa with alcohol and drug addictions.”

Recent increases in Peer Support roles have been a positive development. “It’s an exciting space where we can incorporate their experience into the work we do and the decisions being made. Their lived experience is highly valued and allows them to build trust with Kaewa, bridging the gap between Kaewa and Keyworkers,” says Nic.

A lack of available suitable housing and barriers to access services continue to be the biggest obstacles to providing successful outcomes for Kaewa. “At the moment we’re not able to house people first, which is the evidence-based Housing First model. We’ve had to adapt to giving them support before permanent housing becomes available,” says Anania.

“Some services put up barriers that prevent people who have high complex needs from accessing them which increases their suffering,” says Nic. “Housing is such a huge issue. We’ve always had that mantra of we’ll just keep going and keep doing it because no one else will.”

“I’m proud of how far we’ve come,” says Anania. “Having the team that we’ve built and the Kaewa, some of them have been with us since the beginning. These are the people who remind us of our purpose for being here.”

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