Snapshot of Homelessness in Victoria during COVID-19
image credit: WHO
Victoria came out of lockdown on October 22 2021, as a lot of Victorians reflect on what this lockdown has meant for them, we have taken this opportunity to consider what this lockdown and COVD-19, more generally, has meant for those experiencing homelessness.
There are many reasons people experience homelessness: unemployment, family and domestic violence, mental health concerns and trauma, and substance misuse all can exacerbate the risk (Fitzpatrick et.al, 2013). The economic and social impacts of COVID-19 have increased the amount of people at risk of homelessness due to loss of income (Parliament of Victoria, 2021).
Domestic violence is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2019). Throughout the pandemic, there has been a large increase in both the number and severity of domestic violence cases (Hermant, 2021). Factors associated with this surge include: added social isolation, situational stressors, such as financial stress and job insecurity, and added alcohol consumption, amid domestic violence perpetrators (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2021).
More than a third of victims (36.9%) who suffered either physical or sexual violence, or coercive control, reported not being able to seek advice or support due to safety concerns (Australian Institute of criminology, 2021). The increase in domestic violence and lack of access to help is not only a concerning short-term trend but will likely have long-term impacts on women and children’s health and wellbeing. Behaviourally the longer victims of domestic violence are in situations where there is a sense of no control, the less likely they are to seek help. A major factor in accessing help and safely moving out from domestic violence situations is an individual’s trust in help and support networks. But building this level of rapport and trust takes time, especially if there has been an extended period where access to support and advice has been hindered, as indicated by the data.
Access to Healthcare
Prior to the pandemic, few mainstream health services were designed to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.11). Screening and admission processes often fail to recognise the complexities that contribute to their ill-health (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.11). The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the complexities and dangers that people can face when experiencing homelessness, specifically their limited ability to socially distance, isolate and recover (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.9). Despite the compounding need for safe housing, the pandemic has also highlighted the need to re-orientate health services for vulnerable members of our community.
There is a multitude of barriers people experiencing homelessness face when trying to access the COVID-19 Vaccine. Lack of access to the internet, previous traumatic experiences with the hospital system and not having sufficient ID make accessing the COVID-19 vaccine difficult. The Victorian government has partnered with the City of Melbourne and community health organisation CoHealth in developing pop-up vaccination hubs that are purposely designed to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness (Premier of Victoria, 2021). Specifically, these vaccination hubs include social workers and workers who have experienced homelessness in the vaccination teams (Premier of Victoria, 2021). These inclusions address the different needs people experiencing homelessness have when accessing health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered one of the worst jobs crises Australia has seen in a long time. In April 2020, underemployment in Australia hit a historic high of 13.8% as 1.8 million people had their work hours reduced or were made redundant (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2021). Alarmingly, Youth underemployment reached 23.6%. By August 2020, national unemployment peaked at 7.5%, the highest in over 20 years (ABS 2021). Therefore, there is a real concern that the job crisis will increase poverty and widen inequalities. As of July this year, Victoria’s unemployment rate was 4.5% (Labour Market Information Portal 2021).
In response to COVID-19, the Australian Government provided a ‘JobKeeper’ payment scheme that subsidised wages for businesses affected by lockdowns. In its planning, the wage subsidy was expected to support 6 million workers. The number of workers on ‘JobKeeper’ varied from state to state at different times during the pandemic before the payments finished on 28 March 2021. The JobKeeper payment scheme is not without controversy. Whilst some businesses that received the wage subsidy went on to make a profit during the pandemic, the federal government has issued more than 11,000 JobKeeper recipients with debt notices totalling $32 million.
In March 2020, the Australian government replaced the Newstart Allowance with the JobSeeker Payment. The JobSeeker Payment is the main income support payment for people looking for work. During 2020, the JobSeeker Payment included a Coronavirus Supplement, though this supplement ended 31st March 2021. For many Australians unable to receive JobKeeper Payments, the JobSeeker Payment saved them from deepening financial hardship during the pandemic.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) reported 14%, or an estimated 198,000 people, who had experienced homelessness in the previous 10 years, believe the tough housing and rental market to be the reason for their experience of homelessness. According to the Real Estate Institute of Australia’s [REIA] latest Housing Affordability Report, housing affordability in Victoria has fallen 9.7 percentage points since 2001. Housing affordability will continue to be an issue in Australia unless household incomes increase (REIA, 2021). Better regulation of the housing market by removing/reducing tax incentives such as the capital gains tax concession, for property investment would improve affordability (Yanotti, 2017).
In 2020, the Victorian government implemented several initiatives to support those experiencing homelessness and those at risk due to the economic instability of COVID-19. Hotels For Homeless supported over 2,000 Victorians off the streets and into accommodation in vacant hotels (Premier of Victoria, 2020a). The Government has extended hotel accommodation throughout this year. However, this will not continue past the end of lockdown on October 22nd (Gearin, 2021). The Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing are continuing to work closely with homelessness organisations to identify suitable housing options. In the meantime, the choices people face when they leave hotel accommodation are bleak (Gearin, 2021).
In April 2020, the Victorian Government introduced emergency legislation that put a temporary ban on evictions, pausing rental increases, and providing rent relief for tenants experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic (Premier of Victoria, 2020b). This legislation would later be extended to December 31st 2020 and again to 29th March 2021. Minister for Consumer Affairs, Melissa Horne said regarding the legislation:
Extending the ban on evictions and rental increases is an important step in ensuring we help tenants and landlords get through the coronavirus pandemic and out the other side.
(Premier of Victoria, 2020b)
Despite Horne’s comment, from the 29th March 2021, those impacted by COVID-19 are no longer protected against rent increases or evictions. This also means rental providers are no longer legally required to accept rent reduction unless it was applied for before the 29th March 2021. Housing legislation, such as the ban on evictions and the rent moratorium, as well as the federal JobKeeper and JobSeeker income initiatives, saved people from poverty. However, since March, Victorians have been going into the same tough lockdowns without those vital supports.
Ms. Margaret Stewart, Executive Director, Mission, St Vincent’s Hospital, believes the public health response to the pandemic has “empowered partnerships in a housing-led healthcare response” (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.11). The Victorian Government, as part of its pandemic response, announced a $150 million ‘from homeless to a home’ [H2H] package (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.10). This package is set to provide 1,845 households with access to stable medium and long-term housing and support packages to people experiencing homelessness.
Notably, the package also included mental health, drug and alcohol, and family violence support (Parliament of Victoria, 2021, p.10). Thus, also addressing the underlying factors that contribute to homelessness. Although the pandemic has meant an increase in people at risk of homelessness, the government’s pandemic response has highlighted the need to improve the healthcare responses for people experiencing homelessness that, prior to the pandemic, were lacking.
There is no doubt that the Victorian lockdowns during the pandemic have impacted everyone in different ways. For a complex issue, such as tackling homelessness, it has had varied outcomes. On the one hand, it has highlighted the need to re-orientate health services and have a housing-led approach to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness. Yet, it has also deepened some of the underlying reasons people experience homelessness.
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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) Health of people experiencing homelessness.
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