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Stay at home ... unless you're homeless

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(Image: Homeless by a Wall, by Garry Knight / Flickr)

For years homelessness has been on the rise and with the COVID-19 pandemic, over 116,000 Australians currently without a home are experiencing a crisis within a crisis. Sam Brennan reports.

PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON has repeatedly told Australians: 

“Stay home if you're sick … our preference and our instruction is, more generally, stay home unless you're going out for essentials.”

These comments reflect the calls for social distancing and self-isolation — already a difficult task for many Australians unable to work from home.

But for around one in every 200 Australians currently crashing on couches, staying in boarding houses or, in the most extreme cases, sleeping rough on the street or in improvised dwellings, these measures are impossible.

While homelessness differs greatly for all those affected, one uniting factor is the inability to self-isolate — even those with a roof over their head are often in overcrowded and temporary living spaces. Government advice to stay one and a half metres away from others is just not an option.

As such, homeless persons are disproportionately at risk of contracting the virus. This is particularly true for those sleeping rough, who are at an increased risk of illness.

While the coronavirus will put the homeless more at risk, this situation was a long time in the making.

HOMELESSNESS ON THE RISE

The most comprehensive data on the issue, from the 2016 Census, showed that homelessness in Australia increased by nearly 14% in the previous five years.

While young people make up the plurality for those affected by homelessness, people older than 55 without a home increased by 49% between 2006-2016 — a statistic that should be of great concern considering the threat of COVID-19 to the elderly.

Capital cities were also acutely affected, seeing a rise in homelessness of between 48% and 63% between 2001-2016, while people living in overcrowded dwellings doubled — thanks in large part to rising house prices.

The drastic increase in homelessness within urban areas in the context of the current pandemic – a virus that spreads in dense populations – once again only compounds the two crises. 

The rise in homelessness also has put a massive strain on service agencies, with an estimated 65,800 people each day calling for assistance and 253 of these requests not met. The majority of these concern the need for accommodation.

Jenny Smith, chair of the national peak body for homelessness Homelessness Australia, told Independent Australia:

"There is a completely inadequate amount of social housing to house people who need accommodation during this crisis. Before the pandemic, waitlists [for housing] were already almost a year for people in the most urgent need and as many as ten years, or even more, for other households on social housing waiting lists.”

Since the Howard Government in 1996, public housing has been on the decline, despite the increase in homelessness. Community housing, provided by civil society and NGOs has tried to fill this gap but cannot keep up.

IT COULD GET WORSE ... A LOT WORSE

On March 17, Victoria's peak body for homelessness the Council to Homeless Persons warned of a “tsunami of homelessness,” due to COVID-19.

In Australia, around 600,000 households are in rental stress, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. With the Federal Government predicting that one million people will be made unemployed by the crisis, many won’t be able to pay rent.

Already underfunded and undersupplied, social housing would not be able to cater to this massive influx.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

Tasmania has introduced an eviction moratorium, with housing advocacy groups calling on other states to follow suit, taking some of the pressure off social housing.

The Victorian Government has also offered $6 million in emergency funding to homelessness service agencies.

But as Smith points out:

“It won’t be enough for all the tens of thousands of people losing their jobs or living in overcrowded housing. The scale of this problem means it requires a Federal response.”

While the Federal Government’s coronavirus supplement saw an increase for those on the JobSeeker payment, Smith again noted that this

“... doesn’t start until April 27 and people have several rent payments to make before then.”

Furthermore, not all homeless people are on JobSeeker or other relevant social safety nets; while people on the Disability Support Pension (bearing in mind people with disabilities disproportionately experience homelessness) do not see an increase in line with JobSeeker payments. Those on working visas, student visas and asylum seekers are also at serious risk.

Smith says: 

“The only immediate solution is vacant tourist accommodation, like hotels or AirBnbs.”

Inaction or indecision in addressing homelessness during the pandemic would be disastrous, but homelessness was already a crisis — the outbreak of COVID-19 has only starkly emphasised the need for adequate social housing for all.

Sam Brennan is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @samkbren.

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