Man pouring hot drink for homeless man
Man pouring hot drink for homeless man

The reality of being homeless in COVID-normal Australia

The coronavirus pandemic delivered a unique set of challenges for people experiencing homelessness in Australia. Now, as things get back to a new kind of normal, the goalposts are moving again.

'Stay at home' became standard advice at the beginning of Australia’s COVID-19 response, an instruction that was ramped up as various parts of the country went into lockdown. But for the 116,000 people who are currently homeless in Australia, it was a message that had little meaning yet spoke volumes at the same time.

“Everyone needed somewhere to be and, sadly, that’s just not a reality for every person living in Australia,” says Adam Robinson, founder of StreetSmart Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that raises funds to support grassroots community groups focused on homelessness. “The global pandemic really put a spotlight on that fact.”

But then something remarkable happened. Funded by state governments, more than 30,000 people in Australia who were experiencing homelessness, predominantly those who were sleeping rough or living in severely overcrowded dwellings, were provided crisis accommodation in places like hotels and empty student apartments.

It was a welcome relief for a community of people that have a higher likelihood of experiencing a mental health condition than the rest of the country.

“Almost overnight, Australia’s rough-sleeping problem was solved,” says Robinson, “something those of us working in the sector have been trying to do for decades.

“COVID-19 made the country take immediate action to protect vulnerable people, and the community at large, from the virus.”

And according to Jenny Smith, CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, it worked.

“Unlike some other countries, the actions taken here mean there’s been very little spread of coronavirus in our homeless population,” she says. “But aside from that achievement, it’s been wonderful for so many other reasons, too.

“Despite what some people may think, no-one chooses to be homeless, even people who opt to sleep rough because they don’t want to stay in a boarding house. So nearly everyone, with the exception of a handful of people with complex situations, said ‘thank you’ to the offer of free accommodation. Combined with the increased JobSeeker Payment, it’s been life-changing for many – albeit temporarily.”

One step forward, two steps back

A few months on and life began to return to normal – or at least a new COVID-normal – for the majority of people in Australia.

Robinson says the prospect won’t be as welcome for the country’s homeless population as it may be for others.

“The measures that have been in place because of COVID-19 have protected them and given them a safe place to be. They’ve felt cared for,” he says. “So, getting back to normal for our homeless won’t be particularly appealing. And we’re already seeing people coming back onto the streets and accessing homeless services again as COVID-19 support is being wound back.”

Volunteer wearing mask handing out food

Smith not only agrees, she says it’s a situation that’s particularly worrying given the prevalence of mental illness is already higher among people experiencing homelessness than it is in the general population.

“Many people experiencing homelessness finally felt like they’d been noticed and taken seriously,” she says. “And they’ve been given a glimpse of what life could be like with safe, secure accommodation and a JobSeeker payment that allowed them to do more than just barely survive.

“Ironically, 2020 and COVID-19 allowed a lot of people’s hopes to rise about what the future might look like for our homeless. But sadly, while some longer-term initiatives and plans have been announced, mostly it will be back to business as usual.

“Given we know that it’s the experience of homelessness itself that contributes to many people’s mental ill health in this population, I worry that taking away the additional support and the glimmer of hope they’ve had this year will send many people back further than simply to square one.”

Keep seeking support

While COVID-19 support measures are being wound back, Australia’s homeless support services aren’t.

“We’ve always had good crisis services in place here and will continue to do our best to help as many people as possible,” says Smith.

Regardless of where in Australia you live, if you’re experiencing homelessness, support is available. Homelessness Australia has pulled together a list of relevant resources for every state and territory.

There’s also Ask Izzy, a free, anonymous website that connects people in need of everything from housing, a meal, financial help, domestic violence support, counselling and more, with more than 370,000 services around the country. If you’re on the Telstra or Vodafone mobile networks, you can access Ask Izzy on your phone even if you don’t have credit or access to wi-fi.

You can also visit the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service for information and advice about managing your mental health during the pandemic, or find a health professional to speak to.

A helping hand

If you’d like to help support people experiencing homelessness in Australia, there are a number of reputable organisations you can learn about and donate to.

They include:

Street Smart, an organisation dedicated to supporting homelessness to sustain critical services to vulnerable people.

Mission Australia, who deliver homelessness crisis and prevention services, provide social and affordable housing, assist disadvantaged families and children, address mental health issues, fight substance dependencies, support people with disability and much more.


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