Responding to the homelessness impacts of COVID-19

By: Professor Paul Flatau   |   Centre for Social Impact The University of Western Australia   |   paul.flatau@uwa.edu.au

COVID-19 is one of the most dramatic public health crises we have ever experienced. Its reach is worldwide; its health impact severe. Many of those who are homeless, particularly those who have been rough sleeping for long periods, are far more likely than the general population to experience chronic illnesses and mental health conditions. They are at high risk of severe health impacts and mortality from COVID-19 and will need significant support during this period.

Across Australia over the last month, homelessness services have worked with governments and local communities to provide accommodation to those sleeping rough across Australian cities. Many of these services are now working to provide permanent accommodation to the same group. This would represent the largest transition from the streets to housing we have ever seen in Australia.

The strict social distancing, self-isolation, stay-at-home, and border control and quarantine guidelines introduced across Australia are essential to curbing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the burdening impact of the pandemic on our health system and our frontline hospital and health staff. Staying at home and self-isolation are fundamental measures in the fight against COVID-19, but these particular measures bring to the fore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to combat it have very different impacts on different groups within Australia.

Economists project that the unemployment rate in Australia will increase to over 10% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it; this puts Australia in a position as bad, but more likely worse than the 1991 recession in Australia. Measures are already being taken to keep people in work through the Job Keeper program, support those becoming unemployed through the Job Seeker measures, and keeping businesses as going concerns. In the housing market, strong action has been taken in some states to protect the position of renters struggling to meet rental payments, but there are gaps in the economic, income support and housing response. There is a serious threat emerging that we will see a wave of new entrants into homelessness unless we move quickly to close gaps in our economic and housing response.

It is predicted that women and children will face increased risk of violence in the home. Women’s refuges are struggling to meet demand and also raise funds to support their efforts. It is critical at this time we support services working with women to prevent increases in homelessness among women and children.

At the time of the 2016 Census, young people aged 12 to 24 years comprised nearly one-quarter of those in supported accommodation for the homeless and 16% of persons staying temporarily in other households or couch surfing (an estimate the Australian Bureau of Statistics accepts is likely to significantly underestimate the true level). The vast majority of young people who are homeless are not on the city streets but out in the suburbs and are often invisible to the general community and policymakers. Many young people who are homeless couch surf with their friends’ families, but that option will certainly reduce during COVID-19. Often couch surfing occurs because young people have been kicked out of home or run away from home (with family violence being a key source). Young people experiencing homelessness are also high-stress states with very high rates of attempted suicide and self-harm.

The youth and children homelessness cohort is currently being under-represented in discussions of a COVID-19 homelessness response. Schools, and in particular school counsellors and psychologists working with youth homelessness services, are critical points of intervention for young people at risk of homelessness. Without increased attention on the position of at-risk children and young people, we increasingly face the prospect of young people falling through the cracks and into homelessness.

Wednesday (April 15) was Youth Homelessness Matters Day and it is an important reminder that we must work hard to prevent increases in youth homelessness at this time.

At the Centre for Social Impact we have developed a three-step homelessness response to COVID-19.

  • Prevent the adverse health impacts of COVID-19 on those experiencing homelessness;
  • House those currently homeless and maintain safe and secure housing for those at risk of homelessness; and,
  • Support those who are homeless across the various health, social and financial needs they face and provide additional funding to homelessness and related support services including drug and alcohol, community mental health, family and domestic violence, legal aid, emergency relief, and financial counselling support services to provide the additional support required.

You can read the Centre for Social Impact Response at www.csi.edu.au/news/covid-19-fact-sheets/

Apr. 15, 2020

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