Wellways housing and homelessness teams say the COVID-19 pandemic has unlocked capacity to give people sleeping rough a safe place to reside.
Housing Programs Coordinator Rosalie Frankish says the pandemic has seen the housing system create opportunities for people experiencing homelessness with greater urgency.
“For a very long time, Australia’s housing system has been fractured which has resulted in barriers for people to access affordable housing when they most need it. Demand for safe and affordable housing has outstripped the capacity of services to efficiently respond to people experiencing homelessness,” she said.
“It’s taken a health pandemic to implement resourcing to health and housing-based services to effectively respond to people experiencing homelessness.
“Housing is being viewed as an essential intervention to ensure the health and well-being of people experiencing homelessness. This is a Housing-First Approach which Wellways’ Sustainable Tenancies Programs are built upon.”
Rosie says this new way of operating should be the new normal, or standard response to people experiencing homelessness.
“This should be the rule, not the exception. That people are supported to obtain housing and immediate material needs while support is provided alongside them to maintain this.”
Jacinta Fox is the Senior practitioner for the Pathways to Home Program, Wellways’ Rough Sleeping Program.
Jacinta leads a team of four assertive outreach workers in Melbourne’s East. At 6am they jump in a car packed full of sleeping bags, clothing, food, food vouchers and hand sanitiser to give to rough sleepers who need support.
The team is one of the only assertive outreach homelessness service still operating during the pandemic, so decided to increase the number of days they take the streets to support the demand.
“We’ve increased the number of days we’re out there because of the health risks of the individuals we’re working with and it is even more important to continue to do the work given there are fewer agencies doing outreach at the moment,” Jacinta said.
“It’s led to some really good partnerships. The Maroondah Council reached out to us to ask what it could do. We talked to them about how shower facilities that rough sleepers use had been shut down due to pandemic, as had gyms and they were very keen to do whatever they could to help.
“Council has opened up footy ground facilities where people can have a shower and it also provides a cleaner to provide hygiene equipment and ensure safe physical distancing. Needing to keep clean at this time is really important, it’s huge. The shower service is running twice a week.
“We’re also working with a collection of churches called Winter Shelter that would normally be offering accommodation in a church each night but had shut down because of COVID-19. Winter Shelter are now assisting with volunteers to run the shower program in collaboration with Maroondah Council, and meals three times per week to those who are homeless in the area.
The team is also noticing that as the days and nights become cooler more people are sleeping in squats.
“We’re working with the Maroondah Council to enter that land and offer support to these people,” Rosie said.
Working from her home, Roni Slootzki is helping participants in the Frankston region who are homeless or at-risk to rent homes through the Doorway program.
“I support them through inspections, help to apply for places and liaise with real estate agents. I do recovery support as well and recovery goals can range from becoming a volunteer, undertake education, find a job, or even mental health or addiction intervention,” Roni said.
Four people in Gippsland have secured a property since the COVID-19 restrictions took hold.
“We’ve had to be more flexible – find out how real estate agents are now operating (inspections processes have changed, payment systems are different) all while dancing that line of upholding confidentiality and providing a sense of security for landlords.
Roni says one of the best things to have come from the pandemic is working closer with her team.
“We’re all in this together and we’re stronger together and that means we’re servicing more people and better.
“This pandemic has enabled the sustainable housing teams to work more closely and support each other. The Pathways to Home team are open to the idea of working across the Doorway team, and the Doorway team have been helping the Pathways team by touching base with their participants. It’s been really good to collaborate amongst ourselves.”
Rosie says external collaboration is also strengthening programs
“If you don’t have collaboration, and people holding different elements of the work, it can’t be as successful. We can’t service people effectively without clinicians being on side, councils, homelessness agencies,” she said.
“This has led to more relationships forming. I was cold called by a hotel offering rooms for rough sleepers because they’ve heard of our great work.”
Jacinta says Wellways reputation and the work being done before COVID-19 has been a driving force behind the new and strengthening partnerships.
“It’s been great to work with more agencies, being in it together, being there for the vulnerable people in our community who really need it and being able to work more closely together.”