This month, the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH) submitted a 7-point policy plan to the federal parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia, to urgently end rough sleeping homelessness across the country.

The AAEH’s COVID-19 National Rough Sleeping Homelessness Pandemic Response Plan calls for a health-informed approach to end homelessness.

“We’ve responded really well to the COVID-19 crisis, but we need action to make sure the recovery response doesn’t undermine those efforts. We’ve finally started to treat people experiencing homelessness with some dignity and compassion on a large scale. Let’s not stop now,” AAEH chief executive officer David Pearson said.

“The good news is that despite the common misconception to the contrary, the scale of homelessness in Australia is both preventable and solvable”. AAEH says in its report.

AAEH Chair and Micah Projects CEO, Karyn Walsh, spoke with The Westender about local experiences and responses to homelessness.

During the COVID shutdown Micah worked with the Queensland Government to provide emergency housing assistance, taking close to 1,000 referrals, of which, 95 were families, 172 were children, and 45 were individuals experiencing domestic violence. Some were already sleeping rough; others had been asked to leave households due to restrictions, others were sleeping in cars, or had lost employment and income.

The importance of having a home

Ms Walsh said that the pandemic heightened the community’s appreciation for what it means to have a home.

“Never before have we seen the real importance of a home to community and personal safety.”

“Once we got to Easter the message was, “Everybody stay home for Easter”, and of course, people can’t do that if they don’t have a home”.

“There were people who were sick, people who were still coming out of prison, people who still needed palliative care organised, people still giving birth to babies. So, life was going on, and people’s health needs and personal circumstances didn’t stop. And they didn’t have the luxury of a home to manage all that.”

The pandemic also exposed the extent of over-crowding and couch-surfing that exists within our communities.

Ms Walsh said that people were told to leave households where they may have been staying because people were concerned about overcrowding. Or people would leave themselves because they didn’t want housemates to be fined and incur a debt. And in some instances, neighbours were ringing the police to report overcrowding.

“What the pandemic has made visible is couch-surfing numbers that are normally invisible.”

“The numbers demonstrated that Brisbane does have an affordability issue. People are living in overcrowded situations and, there’s a lot of casual work with a lot of casual workers who are only a pay packet away from poverty. Some people weren’t even a week away from poverty because they were casuals and they didn’t have savings.”

Ms Walsh said that people were also affected by delays accessing their superannuation or dealing with Centrelink for Job Seeker and Job Keeper payments.

“So, the lag between the directive to be at home, to people losing their jobs and getting their Centrelink processed, or processing their superannuation, was really a time when some people literally didn’t have access to anything.”

Many of those who were waiting on payments were able to resolve their housing situation once the money began to flow, Ms Walsh said, but Micah is still supporting 400 people in hotels.

Achol, of Micah Project’s Skilling Queensland Trainees

These are people who have had higher needs and who can’t navigate the system themselves.

“A lot of people, even those who can navigate normal systems, have found the system of Job Keeper quite hard to understand.”

And while it might sound good, hotel living has been no luxury for these people either, MS Walsh said.

“Services were minimised: they weren’t providing room service or daily linen changes or anything like that.”

For some people Ms Walsh said, it was fantastic to have a place to sleep and shower, but for others, it could be challenging.

“People’s trauma and history of trauma and domestic violence and all of the things that feed into why someone is chronically homeless, don’t go away, if anything they’re heightened. We have a lot of people with mental illness, who had very heightened anxiety about what was happening – the disruption to services.”

Ms Walsh said that there was also a massive disruption to the services that many homeless people rely on for basic food, showering and hygiene, and Micah itself had to adapt by supporting access to food and other services that they would not typically provide.

Lara, Micah Projects Street to Home nurses

Housing First

“We managed the COVID crisis around distancing and hygiene and staying at home, so in the future we should really be paying attention to people having a home and making sure that people aren’t thrown into this kind of crisis.”

Micah Projects is a founding member of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessnes. In the past year, they have surveyed over 700 people who have been sleeping rough or experiencing homelessness.

“We know that there is a percentage of people with chronic disease, people with mental illness, people post corrections. So, we can organise how these people are going to be supported.”

Ms Walsh said that if people do not get the right supports, their housing situation will not be sustained.

“We are advocates for a Housing First approach, which is basically the supply of housing and a coordinated approach to health care and community services.”

Ms Walsh said that the traditional approach of funding crisis homelessness services could mean that people get stuck in crisis care as their housing choice.

“But, that’s not what a homelessness crisis system is for. We need crisis care that is rare and is brief, and people don’t come cycling back. And we need a housing system that supports people in stability and gives them access to the services that they need, like health care and personalised community services.”

Micah Projects is now working to find accommodation for those who have been given temporary shelter in hotels during the COVID lock-down. This is taking a bit of time because of the Housing First approach.

Ms Walsh said that community donations are being used for direct assistance to people.

“Brisbane has always been generous about giving us money for set-up into housing. We believe in Housing-First of all, so you don’t send someone to an empty house. We are making sure they’ve got furniture and brooms and buckets and mops. That way, people can feel at home and have a much better chance of being able to make it.”

It costs a lot of money to keep people homeless.

Ms Walsh says we know that not only does it benefit individuals to have supportive housing, it also benefits the government and the taxpayer.

“It’s costing police, it’s costing the watch-house, it’s costing hospitals. People end up going to jail for petty crimes: all of that adds up. It’s much more constructive to put money into the kind of support people need to be stable and housed. So, you know, social housing, is a no-brainer economic stimulus.”

In 2010 Micah Projects launched the “50 Lives 50 Homes” campaign to house and support Brisbane’s vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.

“We’ve had many people since we started in 2010. Some of those people are still housed, and they were living on the streets for years. So, not everyone needs the same level of support; some need it to be onsite like the Common Ground model, for others it could be outreach to their unit in the community, or smaller units specifically tailored to their needs. Planning is essential and understanding who in the population requires what pieces of support. It’s like putting a puzzle together because it’s not one size fits all.

Increasing access to social housing would be a missed opportunity if not addressed by Governments now, Ms Walsh says. She thinks that Governments also need to offer subsidies that will enable people to access the vacant housing that has resulted from travel bans and loss of tourism.

People don’t want to have to move away from their community when housing affordability goes up, Ms Walsh said.

Kat (volunteer) and Chef Kirsty

Causes of homelessness are complex

The reasons that people may find themselves without a permanent home are multiple and can be complicated.

“People’s lives are complicated because so many tragedies happen. It can be someone who’s a professional one day, and in major grief the next because his or her children have died, or children have been removed because of Child Protection concerns. All these things impact how people can function day-to-day. It’s something that we need to start being more realistic about: these tragedies in life happen to people. We need to offer more services to help people address the underlying issues, not just the law and order issues, because people’s lives can be impacted by death, by relationship breakdown, by someone becoming very mentally unwell. All these things are happening in our homes every day. When people don’t have a family or the family just has no more capacity because they’ve burned out, you need human services to pick up some of that load, and then hopefully people can have a relationship with their family again that isn’t so burdensome.”

“We know that inequality is increasing in Australia, and COVID has accentuated that.”

Ms Walsh challenges the notion that some people choose to be homeless.

“Most people who say no to housing, do so because of the kind of housing they think they’re being offered.”

“For some people, it’s a trigger when you first go back to housing because when you were last housed, you were being beaten up, or you had a psychiatric episode. It’s not always easy, but I don’t think, as a society, thinking that people want to be homeless is that helpful. I think that that attitude traps people in homelessness. We’ve got to keep working on the kind of housing that will meet the needs of different individuals.”

“We should never think that there will always be homeless because they want to be homeless. It’s because the options about housing aren’t necessarily that great, and people’s needs are very specific.”

And if you do see people on the streets, say hello.

“A lot of people I know have decided not to give money but will go and buy someone a cup of coffee or buy someone a sandwich. I think they’re all good options. What people say to us is that being seen as a person is what’s important, saying ‘Hello’ to people, not just ignoring them. Some people will look like they don’t want to engage, and maybe they won’t engage, but I’ve had people say to me, I don’t engage, but I really appreciate the offer. Because stigma is a pretty big thing for people sleeping rough, whether that stigma comes from sleeping on the streets, or just not being able to live the same way as everyone else in the community for whatever reason, there’s a multitude of reasons.”

Staff and Volunteers

Micah employs about 240 staff, and during the shutdown has had up to 100 volunteers supporting their work.

As well as housing support, staff and volunteers together have provided, nearly 20,000 food parcels, around 9,000 hot meals, and 10,000 sandwiches.

“We’ve been really thankful for the community support, whether that’s been people dropping in and helping out, and being understanding that it’s a bit chaotic, or people that have donated money.’

What needs to change?

The AAEH says that State and Territory Governments need to continue with emergency levels of funding until people temporarily accommodated in response to COVID-19 receive a suitable housing placement, because, “Tipping people back onto the streets cannot be an option, but without urgent action it will be the only option for too many people,” AAEH

“They just need to stop talking around in circles, and the policies that are a barrier need to change,” Ms Walsh told the Westender.

“There are ideas out there but just keep getting ignored. And they could actually solve the problem. Countries that have solved homelessness, like Finland, which just kept building the houses until they had enough.”

“We know we don’t have enough stock for our general population that’s affordable. And we know that within that we need some supportive housing.”

The only dedicated, supportive housing in Brisbane is Common Ground in Hope Street, South Brisbane, with 147 units.

“We need about three more of them in Brisbane,” Ms Walsh said.

Ms Walsh said that she would like to see this housing option positioned near the hospitals rather than in the inner city because a lot of people have issues around capacity and significant mental health issues.

“They cannot live without some formalised support … but we don’t have enough money in the community to invest in supporting people when they are housed. We need to plan the two together – I’d say 500 units that have embedded support with them would be a really good start. And that includes for families, women and children dealing with domestic violence.”

“We need more dedicated supportive housing, to make sure that rough sleeping doesn’t just keep growing because it will if we don’t do something about it.”

“We need subsidies to private rental. There are units out there that are going to take a few years now to fill up if the economy doesn’t sort of bounce back as quickly as people would like it to. So, the government could pay a subsidy for those private rentals, so that people could afford them.”

And, Ms Walsh said, Job Seekers payments should keep at the current rate. Without that, she said, people will not be able to afford the private market, even with discounted rents.

“None of this is new,” Ms Walsh said, “I don’t understand why governments don’t see the urgency.”

If you are in crisis or are unsure if we can help, please call Micah on (07) 3029 7000.

If you want to donate to Micah, go to this link – https://micahprojects.org.au/donate

Images supplied

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