OUT IN THE COLD: How Homeless Australians are Roughing it During COVID-19

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Words || Elizabeth Laughton

For many, the government COVID-19 restrictions have just been waves of confusing directives containing the words “medical advice”, “household” and “necessary travel”. Many have experienced the last few months as blurry weeks of intense budgeting to ensure rent will be made if their hours at work get cut. But what has COVID-19 been like for people who do not have a household? And what is the government doing for our homeless? 

Many homeless Australians did not know about COVID-19 until comprehensive restrictions were implemented in March. This is because numerous homeless people live without consistent and reliable access to news and government communications. For those people sleeping it rough in urban centres, it would have taken them the clearing out of crowds from streets to register the magnitude of the coronavirus.  

Concerns about how rough sleepers would experience COVID-19 began surfacing in March. For people who experience tertiary homelessness – that is, they couch surf and live place to place – COVID-19 could mean becoming completely homeless and not being able to establish temporary, concurrent living arrangements. For those who are entirely homeless, their lack of access to washing facilities and private space to isolate puts them at a higher risk of contracting this infectious disease. 

Homeless shelters in Sydney have stayed open but at a very limited capacity. While exercising the necessary social distancing restrictions, these shelters cannot offer overnight stays or full meals to as many people as usual. This lowered capacity of homeless shelters is concerning given the increased unemployment dilemma in Australia. The Australian government has estimated over a million jobs have been lost because of COVID-19. While the government has instructed landlords to negotiate rent and act in ‘good faith’, there are no concrete safeguards for when this pandemic subsides, rent is expected, and these Australians cannot yet find work. As for Job Seeker payments, Centrelink eligibility works in wicked and cruel ways.

That said, the New South Wales state government is responding in some ways. 

The New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice has deployed staff to patrol the streets, looking for rough sleepers. These staff members have been offering rough sleepers free hotel accommodation for thirty days during the time of this pandemic. ABC News reports that over 700 people have already agreed to the use of hotel accommodation. However, about 8200 Australians are rough sleepers and not all are in urban centres, which are easier to patrol. 

A similar move was made in London city where homeless people have been given accomodation in hotel rooms. It is the most humane treatment of London’s homeless that we have seen in a long time. The last time London’s treatment of homeless people made international headlines, it was because police were forcefully moving homeless people off the street before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding rolled through town.

Homeless people are at an increased risk of contracting this infectious disease, but the government is making efforts to put some rough sleepers up in hotels for thirty days. These efforts to give temporary accommodation show that governments have known the solution to homelessness all along: give people homes. 

We have already seen the success of non-governmental organisations giving temporary homelessness relief through shelters, job interviews and resume help, barbers and rental clothing. Something as tangible as a haircut can restore a rough sleeper’s dignity, confidence, and employability. The government has taken the first step to solving their so-called ‘homelessness crisis’. 

Help rough sleepers settle and find the stability to establish patterns of income and rent elsewhere. But also help them do so when it isn’t just about containing a pandemic.

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