Housing advocates are reporting a “noticeable increase” of rough sleeping in Sydney fuelled by the Covid-19 crisis and have warned that the virus could “spread like wildfire” among disadvantaged communities unless homeless people are guaranteed safe and secure housing.
As the coronavirus prompts governments to all but clear the streets and demand people to stay in their homes to avoid the spread of the virus, the crisis has also brought a new sense of urgency to the issue, advocates say.
While in the UK, the government has demanded that local councils house all rough sleepers in a bid to stop the spread of the virus, state governments in Australia, who are responsible for housing, have responded in varying degrees of scale and speed.
Katherine McKernan, the chief executive of Homelessness NSW, said although the NSW government had unveiled a $34m funding package last week, Sydney was about “two weeks behind Melbourne and Adelaide”.
This had actually led to “noticeable increase” in rough sleeping in Sydney, she said.
“It’s gotten to a critical point now,” McKernan said. “It’s really hard to quantify the increase because everything is so fluid at the moment. But, [I] can say that there has been an increase and [it] seems to be New Zealanders who have lost their income and housing and young people in the same situation. These people are not previously known to services.
“We are seeing groups of people sleeping rough congregating together, which is not good for keeping people healthy. There’s a lack of food because the food services are no longer delivering.”
Census data shows that about 8,200 people sleep rough in Australia each night. Experts warn that failing to tackle homelessness during the pandemic left the whole community exposed.
“People who are sleeping rough are particularly vulnerable,” Kate Colvin, a spokesperson for the Everybody’s Home campaign, said.
“Partly because often people have chronic health conditions, but also because with a respiratory infection, sleeping somewhere cold and damp is dangerous.”
Despite the need to get people into housing quickly, authorities have failed to find accomodation for Marie* and her children, who is staying in Albany, four hours south of Perth.
Sheltering together in her car in a secluded car park, Marie has found herself fielding a recurring question from her children.
“They’re like, ‘Mum, how come we don’t have anywhere to isolate?’” she said. “‘What’s going to happen to us in lockdown?’ I said, ‘Mummy is going to do her best to get us a home.’”
Marie, who is Aboriginal and fled a violent partner, said she and her three youngest children, aged eight, six and five, had been using public bathrooms to shower.
I don’t put my son at risk from getting this virus, it could harm him fatallyMarie
“How do we know we’re not going to pick up coronavirus from someone else?” she said.
“We have to survive day-to-day. We can’t cook anything, we have to live like we are camping,” she added.
A WA Health map shows multiple Covid-19 cases in Albany, a town of about 30,000 people.
Marie said she was particularly worried about her five-year-old son, who has asthma.
“I’ve been going to Housing every day, ringing them up. ‘Where are we going to sleep? ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing available,’” she said.
“We have to stay in our car … I don’t want to go to anyone’s houses, I don’t want to intrude. And I don’t put my son at risk from getting this virus, it could harm him fatally.”
A spokesman for WA’s Department of Communities said it could not comment on individual cases, but said it was working with Marie to address her housing needs.
In Western Australia, the state government this week announced a “trial” to house 20 people in a five-star Perth hotel. The pilot project could be scaled up if it was successful, the government said. But advocates say the program is completely inadequate in a city with an estimated nearly 1,000 rough sleepers.
Jesse Noakes, an advocate working with WA’s Homelessness Taskforce, said he had 35 homeless clients in a Perth motel who were set to be “kicked out this Saturday back onto the empty streets”.
He said there were “hundreds more out there” and shared photos of a homeless encampment in Perth that was home to about 30 people this week.
“If this is wartime, where is the mobilisation?” Noakes said.
In Victoria, the government announced an extra $6m in funding as service providers move homeless people into motels, while Queensland has committed $24.7m. The SA government has also vowed to pay to accommodate rough sleepers in motels and is yet to quantify the cost of this plan.
On Wednesday, national peak body Homelessness Australia warned more support was needed to “prevent the virus spreading like wildfire in the most disadvantaged households”.
The peak body called for a national moratorium on all evictions, not just those related to financial stress, to prevent “landlords from avoiding the moratorium and using ‘no reason’ notices or evictions for other reasons to evict current tenants”.
The chair of Homelessness Australia, Jenny Smith, said that the hundreds of thousands of people on temporary visas who could not access income support were already “swelling the numbers of rough sleepers”.
The national cabinet is expected to consider rental measures at its next meeting on Friday.
Generally, Colvin said the response from state governments had been positive. “Coming out of this crisis, we’d really like to see what’s been a good emergency response translate into an ongoing response,” she said.
Marie said she just hoped authorities would help her and the children off the streets quickly.
“I just want them to do their jobs,” she said. “House people who don’t have homes.”
* Name has been changed for privacy.