7 May 2020

The coronavirus pandemic came swiftly and without warning to turn our lives completely upside-down! It didn’t discriminate between those it infected, and has proven that noone is immune to it. The routine of our lives is very different now from previously. However, one group of people is experiencing this pandemic particularly acutely – those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Stigmatised for their situation in some media, people in this group are accessing services already stretched to capacity, usually with more suppressed immune systems and generally poorer mental and physical health than the general public. Sadly, this pandemic will raise the numbers of such people, as jobs are lost, rents and mortgages can’t be paid, and stress and anxiety take their toll on relationships and families, resulting in family breakdowns and increased domestic violence.

Secure accommodation is lacking, resulting in rough sleepers, couch surfers, people staying temporarily with friends or families, and living in temporary accommodation or in their cars. They are unable to go ‘home’ to self-isolate in a warm and safe house, fully stocked with food. This pandemic is making their lives even more difficult.

The homelessness agencies and community services which would normally provide support to people experiencing homelessness are operating either at a reduced level, or scaled right back to providing the bare minimum service. These agencies often rely on their volunteers, who have to refrain from normal personal interaction with people.

As I was serving during a meal service in the city, as the coronavirus pandemic started to make its mark on the Australian community, a man who was sleeping rough told me in great distress how hard it was for him to self-isolate when the park is his home. He told me people experiencing homelessness can’t just ‘go home’ to self-isolate. I realised how hard it would be for this marginalised group of people to be safe during this time.

Normally relying mostly on food parcels, and now in further isolation, these people will feel a significant detrimental effect on their mental and physical health, on top of pangs of hunger and loneliness. Boarding and rooming houses, as well as squats where rough sleepers reside, are often crowded, ill-maintained, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities – ideal places for infection to spread, especially among a group generally more immune-suppressed than others.

Many agencies and community services are working hard to support people in these circumstances. Such support workers would be feeling their own distress that they have had to reduce their service to the transactional. People already in need are now experiencing extra stress and anxiety.

The Victorian government finally followed the lead of other cities by housing rough sleepers into hotel rooms. How long will this last, however, and what is the future for these people?

While community services are doing their best to house people experiencing homelessness by enabling them to self-isolate in hotel rooms, this opportunity is only available for a period of time. After that, the streets or boarding houses have once again to be faced.

The pandemic offers an opportunity for the government to make an impact on the homelessness situation. Once the crisis is over, outcomes will be improved by increasing investment in the support required for vulnerable people, homelessness and community services, and safe ongoing housing options. Such action would have the potential to resolve some of our homelessness crisis.

Victoria could show the way.  

Danusia Kaska is Xavier Social Justice Network Coordinator, and a member of Social Policy Connections Board of Directors.
Photo Unemployed. Erich Ferdinand. flickr cc.
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