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IIn the early evening, light leeches quickly escape from Auckland’s central business district, and people follow. Offices are regurgitating workers onto the streets, but their numbers are still small – of the thousands sent to work from home, many have yet to return. Shop windows on Queen Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, are marked with For Lease signs. At the end of the evening, the street is deserted. On many storefronts, homeowners have rolled steel grilles.

Already emptied by the Covid-19, some New Zealand cities are now facing a spike in crime. Police data shared with RNZ indicated that violent crime rates in Auckland, the largest city, had risen 30% from pre-pandemic levels and remained stable on the previous year – despite months of confinement keeping people indoors. In Wellington, recent shootings have shaken some residents. A series of “ram raids”, where offenders drive cars into glass storefronts and steal them, have made headlines. The age of some alleged attackers was particularly shocking: a police report apprehended children as young as 11 years old driving stolen cars.

By international standards, New Zealand cities tend to be relatively safe, and headlines in recent months sometimes contain a hint of disbelief. “Why is there a gang war in central Wellington? ” we ask. “‘What’s going on?’: Another ram raid in Auckland,” said another.

Social service agencies and police say behind the headlines is a simmering mix of social deprivation, exacerbated by the stress of the pandemic, and a cohort of New Zealanders who have escaped government support programs.

After Covid, crime swells in empty New Zealand city centers |  New Zealand
Covid restrictions and lockdowns have seen many New Zealand streets empty. Photography: Jamie Fraser/Getty Images/iStock

Deserted and vulnerable

In downtown Auckland, Maori wardens move through the shopping district in a small herd in high-visibility vests. They stop to give a cigarette to a woman they call “auntie”. She sits near the base of the Sky Tower, Auckland’s best-known symbol, barefoot, cap pulled down over her eyes. “We say aunt, uncle, cousin, because they are someone’s aunt and uncle or cousin. It’s as simple as that, ”says Blaine Hoete, one of the guards who takes care of the center of Auckland.

Guardians call themselves the “eyes and ears” of the city. Many have spent years distributing food and aid, or doing community patrols. In the streets, they say, despair is growing.

“Even though the government has invested a lot of money in the Covid sector, there is still a gap in terms of who is plugged in,” says director Grace Ngaroimata Le Gros of Te Tai Taukerau. Those who fall through the cracks, she says, “are not even screened – so they struggle and go back to the streets and petty crime.”

After Covid, crime swells in empty New Zealand city centers |  New Zealand
Grace Ngaroimata Le Gros, financial consultant and Maori manager, says social deprivation and disconnection from the pandemic have contributed to rising crime in Auckland. Photo: Tess McClure/The Guardian

They are particularly worried about children and teenagers, who began to disappear when Covid-19 closed schools. Principals last week said one in five students were absent last term.

Hoete says some have been gone much longer. “You have rangatahi [young people] who hadn’t been to school for… two years. It’s long,” he said. “We’re talking about the kids… who are street smart, but educationally below the line. And their street smarts took over.

In recent years, the composition of the city has also changed dramatically, as the government – short of public housing – has chosen to place those in dire need in motels. “There was a lot of emergency housing pouring into the streets,” he says. “And they didn’t spill out into the bright, lighted streets – they spilled out into the dark, dark streets.”

These surrounding streets are also empty. While official closures and most restrictions ended in March, the repopulation of New Zealand’s city centers has been gradual. According to pedestrian count data from the Heart of the City, Auckland’s central trade association, pedestrian numbers are still well below this time last year, with some areas down by 40% or more.

This vacuum could be a major reason for the spikes in crime in the city centre, says Jarrod Gilbert, a criminologist at the University of Canterbury. He cites the theory that for most crimes to occur, there must be a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a competent guardian – people who, simply by their presence, discourage the crime from occurring.

Even though the offenders and the targets remain the same, in New Zealand cities right now “there is the problem of capable guardians”, he says. “Spaces that are populated with large numbers of people inhibit crime.” And emptiness can breed emptiness: if people don’t feel safe, they’re less likely to go out, making environments increasingly deserted and vulnerable.

The rise in crime itself and the maelstrom of media coverage that has accompanied it are becoming a political issue for the government, which this month announced more than half a billion dollars in additional funding for the police, one of the biggest spending programs announced in the lead. – until the announcement of the annual budget. The $562 million that will be spent on policing over the next four years will create a ratio of one police officer for every 480 people.

After Covid, crime swells in empty New Zealand city centers |  New Zealand
In Wellington, recent shootings have shaken some residents. Photography: Zunwen Su/Getty Images/EyeEm

But Maori wardens – alongside other social service agencies – say the thefts and ram raids are symptoms of a set of social issues New Zealand is struggling to make progress on: affordability of housing, inequality and the rising cost of living.

“If we wanted to remedy the situation, it [has to be] the housing situation, says Hoete. “And if we wanted to tackle the influence of rangatahi and all the trauma they cause…we need to take financial stress out of homes.”

Getting people back on city streets will also help, says Matarora Smith. Even in recent weeks there has been a change, she says, as she heads out of the office.
“It’s cool to see so many people. Because for a while he was dead.

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