Homelessness and human rights: A review of the emergency housing system in Aotearoa New Zealand

The Human Rights Commission has a statutory mandate to hold inquiries into human rights issues. In 2021, we launched an Inquiry into the right to a decent home. The Housing Inquiry includes reports and other interventions on several housing issues and provides constructive recommendations for a range of stakeholders.

We recognise the current Government faces a housing crisis largely created by decades of institutional neglect. Aotearoa New Zealand suffers from years of undersupply in housing, stemming in part from historic governmental policy to sell off state housing stock. This undersupply has been compounded by drastic house price increases and an increasing lack of affordable rental supply. The Government also faces other complicating factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and response, serious building industry supply issues, and a challenging global economic environment. Some of these factors have driven increased hardship and poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Government has invested very significant effort and funding to develop a system that tackles and lessens both homelessness and the circumstances in which people become homeless.

Our Inquiry builds on the Commission’s recent publication, Aratohu tika tangata ki te whai whare rawaka i Aotearoa: Framework Guidelines on the right to a decent home in Aotearoa. The Guidelines outline the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and signal the different ways this human right can contribute to a fair and dynamic housing system.

This report focuses on the emergency housing system, which is government’s frontline response to homelessness in Aotearoa New Zealand. The emergency housing system includes a range of initiatives, but this report considers two core aspects: emergency accommodation funded by a housing grant, and transitional housing delivered by contracted service providers.

In September 2022 we issued a public call asking those with experience of the emergency housing system to contact us and share their perspectives. Our report summarises what we heard and provides some personal testimonies. What we heard is distressing. In many respects the system has failed those who need the most help. Instead of supporting people through housing insecurity into sustainable solutions, the frontline response to homelessness can deepen problems and trauma that continue to affect people long after they have left the system.

In chapter 4, we identify four immediate human rights obligations that arise from the right to a decent home in relation to homelessness:

Immediate obligation 1: Provide emergency housing that meets minimum decency standards and other key features of the right to a decent home.

Immediate obligation 2: Do not evict anyone into homelessness.

Immediate obligation 3: Uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi alongside other human rights obligations.

Immediate obligation 4: Establish effective and accessible accountability arrangements in relation to the emergency housing system.

Without these features, an emergency housing system will fail to respond to the needs of those it is designed to serve. It also risks further breaching the human rights of those who are particularly vulnerable.

These obligations are binding in international law. They apply alongside other requirements, such as the obligation to take deliberate, concrete, and targeted steps toward full realisation of the right to a decent home for everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In chapter 5, we ask if the emergency housing system in Aotearoa New Zealand is consistent with these four binding immediate obligations. Our report finds three key breaches of the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi:

  1. The emergency housing system is failing to deliver government’s immediate human rights obligations to provide emergency housing that meets minimum decency standards and other key features of the right to a decent home, and not to evict anyone into homelessness. This failure results in a breach of the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
  2. The Government’s decision in 2020 to exclude emergency accommodation and transitional housing from the Residential Tenancies Act is a serious and ongoing breach of its human rights obligation to provide accountability for the right to a decent home.
  3. Government has failed to put in place accountability arrangements for the right to a decent home, grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in relation to the emergency housing system. The lack of accountability over the emergency housing system, in particular the emergency housing grant initiative, is a serious breach of government’s obligation in relation to the right to a decent home.

In chapter 6, we outline recommendations to address these human rights breaches:

  1. Address the inconsistencies between the two different initiatives (emergency accommodation and transitional housing) and create a single, holistic system of emergency housing. This system must:
  • meet urgent housing need at a range of levels and support requirements, without stigmatisation, and with a focus on relational rather than transactional services
  • be designed, developed, and delivered in full partnership with Tangata Whenua, and respond to Māori needs and Te Ao Māori responses to homelessness
  • actively support and build on community, hapū and iwi initiatives, as much as possible
  • be developed in active participation with those who have lived experience of homelessness and the emergency housing system.
  1. Phase out the use of uncontracted commercial accommodation suppliers receiving the Emergency Housing Special Needs Grant to deliver emergency accommodation as soon as possible.
  2. Commit to adequately protecting the rights of those in the emergency housing system, either by amending the Residential Tenancies Act or by creating an alternative mechanism that is significantly stronger than the current draft Code of Practice for Transitional Housing.Human Rights Commission
  3. Establish an effective, accessible, and constructive accountability mechanism for the housing system, including the emergency housing system.
  4. Establish an independent advisory and advocacy group grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Government cannot escape its human rights obligations, including the obligation to deliver decent emergency housing for those experiencing homelessness, by asserting that, despite the failures of the emergency housing system, the alternative would be worse because people would have nowhere to stay. We have heard from people who went back to sleeping in their cars because they felt safer there than in emergency accommodation. This speaks to the inadequacy of the system as it is currently designed and operating. In a country like Aotearoa New Zealand, neither homelessness nor a failing emergency housing system are acceptable and both fall short of human rights standards.

The current emergency housing system is failing those who are most in need. But it is not beyond hope or repair. There is progress. For example, we see positive signs in the introduction of pilot programmes bringing together a range of different organisations to work collectively towards change. Housing and social service providers, community organisations, hapū and iwi are all doing lifesaving work, and we have heard many suggestions for alternative ways of working that could make a positive difference. Government’s ongoing review and reset of the emergency housing system offers an opportunity to take up these new approaches and initiatives.

The fear of getting it wrong must not stand in the way of taking opportunities to try something new. Now, more than ever, we need bold and courageous thinking about what a decent housing system would look like to eliminate homelessness. By working together and with imagination we can create an environment in which everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand enjoys the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

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