Meet Nicola Fleming, team leader, Housing First Christchurch

Published: May 18, 2020

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Following successful programmes in the North Island, Housing First began operating in Christchurch in 2018.  It’s a model that turns the traditional way of thinking about homelessness on its head. It’s about people first, and all signs so far are as positive as the attitudes of those involved.

Nicola Fleming says she is proud the Christchurch team is working so well together.

“They’ve taken on the task full heartedly.  They care, they challenge, they tackle the hard stuff.  Soon to come on board are our peer support workers – that is, people with ‘lived’ experience.  We’ll welcome them with open arms and value the insight they will give us to connect with our kaewa, our homeless.”

Nicola has had a long involvement in housing in Christchurch.  She spent 22 years with Housing New Zealand, before moving to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to manage a team responsible for the Residential Red Zone.

“Housing New Zealand taught me a lot,” she says.  “It gave me a great knowledge of public housing and communities.  It also taught me a lot about people, and the importance of respecting who they are.  My time with CERA taught me to be patient and understanding and gave me some great leadership skills.”

A role with Darroch, a crown property company, meant running a portfolio of teacher housing from a desk and didn’t sit so well with her.

Then the opportunity with Housing First came up.

“My interest was piqued.  The Housing First model is so different in the way it works with people.  It’s really about putting people first.  It also allowed me to build a team with similar values to my own.”

After three months in the role, Nicola says there have been some surprises and challenges.

“I love the way Housing First is all about choice.  This is a completely different way to how I’ve worked in the past.  It certainly got me thinking about ‘standard practice’ in New Zealand, and how change is needed.  I‘m also thankful and relieved Christchurch landlords are supporting Housing First, because that makes our job a lot easier.

Nicola’s team is fortunate to have the backing of collaborative partners – Comcare Trust, Emerge Aotearoa, City Mission, Otautahi Community Housing Trust and Te Whare Roimata.

“They have seconded staff into the Housing First team and continually work with us to remove any barriers,” she says.

Housing First is also funded by the Christchurch City Council for its Peer Support and Community Development.

“We see community development as an essential part of our service once our kaewa (homeless) are housed, and we’re excited to take them on a journey with us.”

Referrals come through City Mission, Salvation Army and many other organisations.  The team is also continually walking the streets to reach out to those who need them, and connect with local community organisations.  As time goes on, Nicola says they are finding referrals coming from kaewa already housed.

One thing stands out, though.  Nicola is surprised at the lack of ID people have and the time it takes to get.  She says they are also faced with challenges around mental health and how to access a simple assessment for kaewa. 

“We attended an information session within the mental health sector recently.  It was extremely useful, and we hope that’ll open some pathways for us.”

The team works closely with MSD’s Reg Pennells, who Nicola describes as invaluable. 

“Without him Housing First would have so many delays in achieving so many of the required MSD forms and processes.  Reg meets with us regularly, and with our kaewa, to get them on benefits, assist with ID, getting them on the Housing Register, and general Work and Income assistance.  He’s also extremely helpful with getting kaewa off the streets when we first meet them.”

Getting kaewa off the street as soon as possible involves Emergency Housing, and the Housing First team, together with Reg, are often able to provide accommodation within the first few days or hours of meeting kaewa if this is an option they want.

“It’s really important that we have the right people working with us and our kaewa.  Reg cares about people, he understands the difficulties with living on the streets, and he is part of ending homelessness in Christchurch. He has these values which makes our job so much easier.”

Although the team has housed many homeless within a short time they still require a lot more suitable housing.  Finding warm, dry housing which is not in a complex and is suitable for one person – sometimes a pet as well – is a challenge.

Nicola says she is proud to lead Housing First. 

“My team stands out and I’m really proud of them all!  In such a short time period they are passionate about ending homelessness and really care about our kaewa.  They continually challenge systems and processes, and work for the best outcome for our kaewa.  We laugh at lot – we have to!”