Rotorua emergency housing safety crisis: Retired top cop speaks out over fears for son

Retired police chief Superintendent Gary Smith says new-found independence has been stripped from his high-needs adult son because of safety issues in Glenholme.

The former Bay of Plenty district commander moved back to Rotorua in 2015 to retire so he and wife Rose could prepare 33-year-old son Carl, who has Down Syndrome, to be more independent.

For the first time three years ago, he was able to move into his own house in Glenholme and could walk each weekday by himself along Fenton St to St Chads, a centre for people with disabilities.

But in the past six weeks, the Smiths have had to stop him walking alone because they fear for his safety.

Smith said he was forced to speak out about the dire situation Glenholme residents faced because he feared the emergency housing arrangements on Fenton St and the surrounding areas were becoming more permanent and the numbers living there were increasing.

He is part of Restore Rotorua, a group of Rotorua residents fighting to stop six more resource consents from being granted without public notification. The consents would allow more permanent emergency housing motels in the central city.

The Smiths chose Glenholme to buy a house for Carl because it was quiet, safe and there were good friends and neighbours nearby who understood their son’s condition.

“Now it’s a circus. Yelling at all hours late and early, public domestic disputes, cars zooming down quiet residential roads, intentional damage, theft, cars broken into, the works. It’s completely overwhelming. It is a ticking time bomb and a disaster waiting to happen.”

Smith said his son was friendly and said “hello” to everyone but was cognitively impaired and was likely to react to those living in emergency housing when they spilled out on to the street.

“As a parent, we are left fearing for his life and safety. We have had to roll back much of his freedom, and ours, to keep him safe. The independent lifestyle we spent so long building for him has been disrupted. The landscape of Glenholme is now unpredictable and unsafe. There is more violence on the streets.”

Smith said his son couldn’t walk alone any more, he couldn’t catch the bus from the places he used to, and his routine had been completely disrupted.

Smith was critical of Rotorua Lakes Council for allowing emergency housing motels to grow significantly and was critical of the Government for using Rotorua as an “easy target” because it had lots of motels.

“To say that the complaints are few, or frivolous, fails to appreciate what it’s like at the coalface. This is our home. This has affected our lives and there is no end in sight.

In his view: “Enough is enough. It is insulting to be told that our issues are just perception … “

Smith said he believed the council ought to have known bringing a high concentration of people on the opposite side of the social spectrum to the existing residents would cause huge upset and problems.

“What is happening is good for no one. It is not the fault of the homeless, they are placed in conditions where their daily activities spill out into, and affect, the neighbours in the area. They deserve more space, they deserve appropriate housing, however, the behaviour of some of them is concerning.”

He said their family would be forced to make some hard decisions if something didn’t improve dramatically soon.

“If all of us stay silent then it will just get worse. I do not want to have to sell up and leave, but if six more CBD motels are approved by council for emergency housing, what choice will we have?

“Maybe I’m being naive but I thought the council was here to represent the residents in a balanced and proportionate manner,” he said, expressing his view.

Council district development deputy chief executive Jean-Paul Gaston said he was sorry to hear about Smith’s concerns and the council would discuss them directly with Smith.

“We recognise and acknowledge the concerns of all residents in Rotorua, we are acutely aware of what is being communicated by those who neighbour emergency housing areas, and we are taking the housing crisis extremely seriously.”

He said housing was the council’s main priority and no one wanted to see people living in motels but the reality was there was a lack of affordable and available houses.

The council was working with urgency to speed up as many new homes as possible, he said.

Gaston said there were six consents currently on hold as more questions had been asked of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

He said they were included in the now 13 motels contracted by the ministry to deliver emergency housing services and were already in use.

He said a resource consent process ensured a motel was converted to suited residential living.

In response to concerns about crime, Gaston noted Senior Sergeant Mike Membery said at a recent council operations and monitoring committee meeting “the centralisation of transitional housing had not disproportionally increased the demands on police”.

The Rotorua Daily Post had asked the police for data to back up this statement and has made an Official Information Act request for crime data relating to Glenholme and incidences involving those in emergency housing motels.

The safety presentation to the council also outlined plans for more security cameras on Fenton St and those cameras were expected to be live within three months.

The council was also increasing the number of Safe City Guardians from four to 10 to patrol the city including daily patrols of the Fenton St and Glenholme areas.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Development housing supply, response and partnerships deputy chief executive Anne Shaw said Rotorua was a focus area for its Public Housing Plan because it had a shortage of affordable homes as a result of increasing population, lack of available land and a historically low level of building activity.

“We don’t see motels as a long-term answer for housing, but we need to deal with the immediate needs of people who need a roof over their head tonight. At the same time, we are working with a range of stakeholders to increase housing supply in Rotorua.”

In May, responding to local need, the Government announced changes to emergency housing.

The changes included developing a one-stop Housing Hub and contracting for wrap-around support services.

Other changes included contracting motels exclusively for use as emergency housing by phasing out the practice of mixed-use motels for tourism and emergency housing.

Shaw said those steps were designed to ensure vulnerable people were fully supported, the motels were well managed and maintained and were operated safely for tenants and the community.

She said for this to happen, it was working with the council to ensure appropriate consents were secured.

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