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How the A.C.T. is assisting homeless Canberrans during the COVID-19 crisis

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Homeless people in the A.C.T. are being affected by both winter and the COVID-19 pandemic (Screenshot via YouTube)

With the COVID-19 crisis making homelessness an even bigger problem, the A.C.T. Government is finding solutions to help those affected, writes Chris Mordd Richards.

CANBERRA HAS A PROBLEM that is mostly out of sight, out of mind for the vast majority that lives here.

Homelessness. As much as Canberra likes to pretend it is the ideal city, there are still hundreds sleeping rough or in unstable circumstances on any given night in the A.C.T.

It is a problem that is out of sight a lot of time, excepting someone begging outside one of the shopping centres or curled up in an alleyway trying to sleep away from the public eye. It is a problem that we cannot continue to ignore, though, not if Canberra really does have a social conscience.

It is especially fraught for rough sleepers during winter, where temperatures plummet to zero degrees or colder overnight. For women or children sleeping rough in Canberra, there are limited options at any time of year, even more so during winter.

For men sleeping rough in Canberra, there are no options at all, except during winter. This winter with the coronavirus, that option – A.C.T. Safe Shelter – has not been able to operate at all due to concerns around the virus.

I asked Housing Minister Yvette Berry how the A.C.T. Government was looking after rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially considering Safe Shelter is not operating for the men.

The response from her office detailed the measures the Government has taken to provide temporary accommodation:

The A.C.T. Government funded a $3 million stimulus package for the specialist homelessness sector to help the sector respond to and provide support for people facing homelessness or domestic and family violence during COVID-19. This funding includes three emergency and long-term accommodation options for men, women and children: Axial Housing, Winter Lodge and Mackillop House.

Additional funding was also provided to OneLink to expand their capacity. OneLink provides information and connections for support services in the A.C.T., including temporary accommodation.

The Government also provided funding to A.C.T. Housing to furnish and upgrade existing public housing stock to be made available as crisis or shelter accommodation.

As of 8 June 2020 (more recent stats are not available yet), the following numbers have been assisted:

  • OneLink has provided 529 nights of accommodation since 28 March 2020, assisting 139 individuals or families;
  • the Street to Home program accommodated 11 people, provided case management to 20 people and outreach support to 42 people sleeping rough. The number of people provided outreach in a month has almost doubled since January when 23 people received it;
  • Axial Housing has successfully housed 21 rough sleepers through the Housing First program;
  • Winter Lodge, which opened on 11 May 2020, has seen 26 men access the service; and
  • MacKillop House, which opened on 2 June 2020, has received 25 referrals for accommodation.

Even given these measures, though, there is still a decent number of people sleeping rough around Canberra — I have observed many myself over the past few months. Whether it is a case of people refusing assistance, difficulty by the services in connecting with everyone or other myriad issues, some people are still suffering and sleeping outdoors in freezing weather.

There are not always easy answers to issues of homelessness. It is essential, though, that we as a city and a society keep trying to do better, to do more. Anyone who has been homeless, myself included, knows how hard it can be to escape the destructive cycle you end up caught in and the mental health toll it takes on you and your ability to ask for help.

Some recent good news comes in the form of the launch of a Sleepbus for Canberra and Queanbeyan.

As this article by All Homes explains:

‘The Sleepbus project provides safe and temporary overnight accommodation to those living on the street.’

Extra overnight beds in Canberra and Queanbeyan are sorely needed and this initiative could not come at a better time right now, although it has been in the works for almost two years to bring this to fruition.

What is really needed long term is more funding for A.C.T. Housing for permanent social and public housing accommodation. Last year, the waiting list for A.C.T. Housing properties had ballooned out to over 2,000 people and was expected to double in number at the time.

Given the increased risk, many more Canberrans could end up homeless due to coronavirus job losses and other associated factors. These numbers are likely to only grow even higher over the coming years.

What we need is something like the $450 million housing package announced by the A.C.T. Greens for this year's A.C.T. election. Whether Labor or the Liberals are prepared to come on board with that proposal is currently unclear — the Greens' proposal certainly sets a high benchmark for the issue.

It is time that Canberra led by example when it comes to homelessness and a home for all. There are parts of the country worse off, but that does not mean that the A.C.T. cannot do better and demonstrate to the rest of Australia how to treat the least well-off with dignity.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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