Housing the Homeless

Winter is upon us and for those who don’t have a roof over their head the transition into the wet and cold season can be a difficult and often dangerous time. 

It’s not a new issue, but in Auckland it’s getting worse. New figures show approximately 1 in 100 Aucklanders are homeless and the figure unfortunately looks set to increase.

Being ‘homeless’  includes not only the people we see sleeping on park benches or the street, but also the less visible group of people forced to stay in over-crowded houses with friends or family or in motels, boarding houses and camping grounds.

While all homeless people are vulnerable, children are especially at risk. Contrary to common belief, the majority of New Zealand’s homeless are not solo adults. As of 2016, more than half of the country’s homeless population were families with children, many of  whom are sleeping in cars or in temporary and  inadequate accommodation.

Homeless Vic Park

‘Home’ for a rough sleeper in Auckland’s Victoria Park.


There are some steps that are being taken to alleviate the shortage of accommodation for some of Auckland’s most vulnerable people.  The Housing First programme was launched in Auckland this March. The programme is a partnership between Lifewise and the Auckland City Mission. Their aim is to house individuals directly from the street, without precondition. It is only once they’ve been placed in accommodation that any other underlying issues such as mental health, addiction, medical care, and education are addressed. It is hoped these measures will ensure safe housing for the people who are at risk, as well as support their integration back into their community.

The programme was formally launched at Auckland Conversations by Dr Sam Tsemberis, a US-based community psychologist who founded Pathways to Housing in New York City in 1992. It was centered on the premise that housing is a human right. This model has proven to be successful and has put roofs over the heads of more than 3,000 people in New York. This model has been adopted in other parts of the world, recently reaching Sydney with the Common Ground project, which houses over 100 otherwise homeless people at any given time.

Sydney's Common Ground

The Common Ground development in Sydney.


In Auckland, the Housing First programme will initially focus on people experiencing chronic homelessness in the city centre. The programme will have ongoing input from people who have previously been homeless, as well as local Māori, who will provide a kaupapa Māori approach.  It is hoped that in 2017 the programme will provide up to 60 rough sleepers with rapid access to housing with flexible community-based mentoring or support.

Whilst Housing First is an excellent initiative for helping individuals who are homeless find their feet, the model doesn’t address the pressing issue of housing families without homes.

In the London Borough of Lewisham, a colourful approach (literally),  has been taken to housing homeless families. Historically, one of the city’s poorer boroughs, a surge in popularity and investment has seen house prices rise by more than 15% over the last year. Rental prices have climbed at a similar rate. Unfortunately, the increasing price of the borough’s housing stock has taken its toll, with more than 9,000 households on the waiting list for council accommodation, many of them families.

PLACE / Ladywell is a “pop-up village” providing temporary accommodation for 24 families that would otherwise be homeless, as well as ground-floor space for community and enterprise use. The project was completed last August and  sits on the site of an old leisure centre that will eventually be used for a new housing development and school. With the land otherwise lying vacant, Lewisham Council decided it could be put to use housing families in need in the interim.

Construction of PLACE / Ladywell (Source: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners)

Construction of PLACE / Ladywell in Lewisham (Source: RSHP)


The development was designed by renowned architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), who are also behind the YMCA’s Y:Cube, which provides units for people in urgent need of housing. The flats were pre-fabricated off site and arrived on the site in two pieces – one being the kitchen, the other the bedrooms. All of the units exceed the minimum London space standard requirements by 10%.

Their design ensures the development can be easily deconstructed and relocated, which is exactly what Lewisham intends on doing. The structure will spend no more than four years on its current site, after which, it will be deconstructed, moved and reconstructed elsewhere in the borough.  This will allow for the development of the permanent housing and school to commence.

The project is an example of a ‘Meanwhile Use.’ This was a term coined by the Meanwhile Project, a charity set up to activate temporarily disused spaces. The term describes the temporary use of vacant buildings or land for socially beneficial purposes while they await their eventual use.  

With the level of development currently taking place in Auckland, utilising vacant land for ‘meanwhile uses’ such as temporary accommodation could be a short-term solution the growing issue of homelessness in our city.

The Y:Cube, also designed by RSH+P, provides housing for individuals in need (Source: RSH+P)

London’s Y:Cube, also designed by RSHP, which provides urgent housing for individuals in need (Source: RSHP)


As Dr Tsemberis stated at the Auckland Conversations event, housing the homeless will not address the wider and more deeply rooted issues of housing affordability and access in New Zealand.  However, having a roof over your head seems like a right every New Zealander should be entitled to.

Watch Dr Tsemberis full speech at the recent Auckland Conversations event below.

Next week we look at  public spaces and how these can be better designed as multi-functional spaces that cater for everyone, including people who are homeless.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply