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Concerns raised over homeless woman living under a bridge

Concern has been raised over the treatment of a homeless woman who has been living under a bridge in Gisborne.

Tressa Ropiha has received a notice from Gisborne District Council (GDC) to shift elsewhere or face police action.

However, questions have been raised as to the council's responsibility when it comes to helping homeless people such as Ms Ropiha, who has been unable to get emergency accommodation because of lack of availability and owning a dog.

Ms Ropiha, who is in her late 40s, has been sleeping rough on the streets of Gisborne for over four years — three of those with her dog Moko.

For the past year, the pair have been living under William Pettie Bridge between Rutene and Ormond roads.

The Herald understands a trespass notice was to be served on Ms Ropiha by the police as had been done for the council in the past on other homeless people.

Police went to the bridge on Thursday last week and told Ms Ropiha she had to vacate the area by Monday, January 17.

Ms Ropiha said she believed there had been complaint from a member of the public to the council about her living there and the police were brought in.

“I am living here because I have a dog so I can't get housing, not even emergency accommodation.

“This is the only place I have got for me and my dog.

“Nobody wants to take me in with my dog and without my dog I won't go. She's my baby and she's kept me safe. Moko's a part of my whānau.”

Lockdown also played a part.

Ms Ropiha said she wasn't able to find accommodation anywhere, as emergency housing went to families in need.

“I found some private rentals but they were asking for $400 and upwards (a week), which I can't afford.

She said she had received a little financial support from Work and Income and was set to start employment on Tuesday.

However, due to the current situation, she is yet to start work.

Oasis Community shelter manager and housing advocate Lizz Crawford said in this situation the council might have decided it didn't want people living under the bridges.

“However, instead of trying to work something out with the people, they have got the police involved as a first response.

“It is a common issue. I think some (council) regulations are directly associated with homelessness such as the freedom camping bylaw, which was changed recently, and extending alcohol ban areas to areas where people without homes may be living.

In the past, the council had brought in a dump truck to remove homeless people's belongings, she said.

At first Ms Crawford thought that only Ms Ropiha's belongings were being taken.

Later she was informed they planned to remove her.

“Is it right to remove somebody and put them somewhere? If you have nowhere for them (to go) and this is all they have, what are you doing? The council just wants her gone without helping her . . . where is she meant to go?”

In an email conversation between Tairāwhiti police and Ms Crawford, a police officer said the reason for Ms Ropiha's removal was because of “sanitation issues”.

Ms Crawford said the shelter she managed was for men only, so Ms Ropiha could not go there. Gisborne did not have a women's shelter for cases such as Ms Ropiha and emergency accommodation was at full capacity.

“The Showgrounds is a good shelter. Pets are allowed but at present it is at full capacity. With landlords against pets, it can be very hard to find accommodation in an already stretched rental market in Gisborne. For Tressa, her pet is like a child but some people don't view it that way.”

Ms Crawford said Ms Ropiha had asked the council for help with accommodation.

“The police and council told me there is nothing and that it is not their problem,” Ms Ropiha said.

After the Gisborne Herald emailed East Coast MP Kiri Allan's office, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) was contacted. It was not aware of Ms Ropiha's situation.

MSD East Coast regional commissioner Karen Bartlett said Ms Ropiha had been a client for some time, however, “our records do not show any requests for emergency housing assistance in the past”.

“Our records show that she has an address. We learned of her situation through MP Kiri Allan's office on Monday. We are now working with Tressa and her advocate to find suitable accommodation for her, although pet-friendly accommodation providers can be more challenging to find.

“We keep in regular contact with Gisborne District Council on the wider issue of rough sleepers through the Manaaki Tairāwhiti partnership we are both part of, and we intend to discuss Tressa's situation with them. We encourage anyone who has nowhere to live to get in touch with us on freephone 0800 559 009 to discuss their situation and what assistance may be available to them.”

A police spokesperson said their role was to ensure all members of the community were safe and felt safe.

“We work alongside our community partners to do this and will respond to calls for service as appropriate.

“Our community policing team is working alongside our partner agencies and this individual to help ensure the best possible outcomes for her.”

GDC environmental services and protection director Helen Montgomery said the council received two complaints about Ms Ropiha and a number of other people sleeping under William Pettie Bridge.

“One complaint is related to Ms Ropiha's dog and its barking. The other is about the build-up of rubbish where she and others sleep, where a large amount of waste has accumulated. As Ms Ropiha is usually clean and tidy, it appears other homeless persons have taken advantage of the situation and deposited unwanted items there.

“Together with police, council staff have tried to get alternative accommodation for Ms Ropiha but providers won't accept dogs on their premises. She has refused to part company with the dog, she has also refused to work with social assistance agencies on seeking alternative arrangements.

“The council has arranged the removal of the waste and will continue to work with Police and other community agencies to seek alternative arrangements for her.”

The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Act 2019 states the purpose of local government is to promote community wellbeing. This means local authorities are responsible for improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of their communities.

People's Project strategic analyst Carole McMinn told The Herald the Local Government Act 2002 was often referred to when talking about a council's responsibility around homelessness.

“The Act does not explicitly set out a role with regard to housing or homelessness. However, Section 10 identifies the purpose of local government is to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of communities in the present and for the future.”

Ms McMinn says the Hamilton City Council has been a strategic partner in the formation of their service, the People's Project — a homeless service supporting single adults and couples who are homeless.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is charged with supporting people who are homeless in New Zealand.

The Ministry of Social Development is charged with supporting people with the financial means to access emergency accommodation when homeless.

WOMAN'S BEST FRIEND: Tressa Ropiha and her dog Moko in their living set-up under William Pettie Bridge. Tressa had been ordered to leave the location but says she has nowhere else to go. Picture by Liam Clayton

  1. Manu Caddie says:

    If society isn’t prepared to do anything substantive about the housing crisis I’d like to register my support for Ms Ropiha to live on public land as long as she wants to – likewise anyone else who isn’t harming others should be permitted to camp on the commons wherever they want to. Shall I lodge a statement in support of this arrangement that I assume GDC will consider with equal weight to any complaint they receive about the situation. We keep voting for politicians who aren’t prepared to put the brakes on property prices nor stop landlords increasing their wealth by fleecing tenants who can’t get enough income or savings to meet lending requirements – so the least we can do is allow the victims of our apathy and greed to find a discrete public place they feel safe and comfortable to rest.

    1. Megan Kelso says:

      I agree with Manu – where are these people supposed to put a shelter over their heads. I work with under privileged people and everyday I am shocked at what the rentals on Gisborne properties have increased too – if there are any available. I also visit properties – three bedroom HNZ housing where the tenant is one person and some of them have other boarders in the rooms paying horrendous weekly amounts – while the housing NZ tenant is creaming it – why go to work. This accommodation could go to a family in need and give the single tenants one bedroom. Being a “dog” person myself I can understand Ms Ropiha not wanting to part with her baby. Who else is going to protect her living rough through no choice of her own. Come on GDC look for another alternative for this woman – what happened to be kind to each other.

    2. Fay says:

      Agree with you both how pathetic is our council to get the police to get rid of her? You are duty-bound to help this lady. Do it.

    3. Mike says:

      Why aren’t marae being opened up to help with this crisis . . . just asking?

    4. Janet says:

      So her dog barked. Big deal, this woman lives under a bridge, through no fault of her own. I’m sure it’s not a picnic for her or by choice. Good grief?
      Grow a heart, what happened to being kind … and two people moaned? Big deal.
      Instead of moaning, offer her help.

    5. Tui Bella says:

      I was scared to read the comments – I didn’t think I could stand any more meanness towards Theresa. Your comment was awesome! I’m so glad people like you exist.

  2. Lizz Crawford says:

    It is definitely a housing-crisis issue. All pathways that are in place appear to be at full capacity in Tairawhiti, i.e. emergency housing. Housing criteria within these systems preclude some in need of housing, i.e. “no pets”, “must be working”, “suit couples or no couples”, “no children”, “A12”, etc. Alternative living arrangements then impact on other systems. The outcome is the same – no housing. We have here a major gap in multiple systems simultaneously, systems under pressure and a major pandemic to boot. Absolutely there are others that are doing well out of this housing crisis, as is the case when a crisis hits. Where do we start? We start with our values and looking after each other because that fits (and in some cases overrides) any system.

  3. Rae. says:

    Kia ora, I am sure Kainga ora, Tamaki Makaurau allows pets. Something to enquire about. I saw an article where people in Northcote Kainga ora were allowed to keep their much loved pets.
    Why not Tressa Ropiha & Moko?

  4. Tui Bella, Matakana Island says:

    Of course she doesn’t want to give up her dog – it’s her support. She doesn’t have anyone but I bet her dog loves her and that provides comfort. Trying to blame her homelessness on the dog is crap. There are thousands of people like Theresa without dogs sleeping rough. I can’t imagine how miserable a person you need to be to ring and complain about a women living under a bridge. The council said “sanitation” was a concern but had zero concern for Theresa living without a toilet or shower. Taking her belongings and standing over her waiting for her to leave when you know she has nowhere to go is so heartless. You humiliated her. Tens of thousands of NZers are living in motels, we have some of the highest rents in the world and homelessness is now a criminal offence! We should be ashamed. What are they going to do? Fine her? Put her in jail?