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COVID’s effect on Australia’s homeless

In the face of COVID, governments strongly encouraged people to stay inside, safe and away from potential COVID transmitting risks. However, this was not possible for our homeless population, one of the most badly hit by the recent pandemic. 
Who are the homeless in Australia?
In Australia, estimates from the 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census showed that 51,088 people were living in ‘severely crowded’ dwellings, 21,235 people were in supported accommodation and 8,200 people were rough sleepers. In total, the national homelessness rate is 49.8 homeless persons per 10,000 of the Australia population (based on 2016 Census data), however, this is uneven across Australia, for example, in the Northern Territory the figure is a shocking 599.4 people per 10,000.
Besides geographic unevenness, according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) there are also certain groups that generally are of a heightened risk of experiencing homelessness:

  • those of middle age (especially men) and older single women;
  • Indigenous and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities;
  • those (especially women and children) who have experienced domestic violence;
  • those who have experienced mental ill-health and substance abuse;
  • people exiting prison, foster or state care or the military;
  • those with low education and unemployment.

With COVID, the risk factors now have also changed slightly, and disproportionately impacted groups such as renters, temporary visa holders, international students and others who are ineligible for government assistance. Youth are also particularly at risk of homelessness in the new COVID affected housing landscape, with SYC, a non-profit provider of housing services outlining that this is due to the “the casualisation of the workforce, rates of youth unemployment and underemployment and inadequate rates of income support when combined with the cost of renting and the decline in affordable rental properties, provide a damaging mix and place young people at greatest risk of homelessness”.
With so many people at risk and experiencing homelessness, their health needs to be prioritised in importance, to prevent the virus’ potential transmission of the virus, especially given the fact that people who are experiencing homelessness are more likely to have pre-existing health issues.
So how has COVID affected the homeless?
“Homeless persons are among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable groups affected by the threat of COVID-19.” – The Castan Centre for Human Rights
Firstly, when people do not have a safe, secure and affordable home, social distancing, hygiene and sanitation requirements cannot be followed, according to a 2020 report by the Australian Ministry for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services that emphasised the ‘crucial link’ between housing and health. The report evaluated the government’s response to COVID and Australia’s homeless, which focused on emergency accommodation being to 40,000 by September 2020. It concluded that as this solution was temporary in nature it had notable shortcomings, such as leading to insecurity amongst those it was meant to support. Homelessness NSW described that decisions to accommodate homeless people in hotels: “occurred with patchy support, potentially re-traumatising those…some were initially only guaranteed 3-5 days accommodation, some people were left in temporary accommodation for weeks with no food or contact.”.  
Yet of greater concern is how the health and safety of those in accommodation was very poorly managed. The Australian Association of Social Workers – while acknowledging the efforts to place rough sleepers in hotels – outlined that many people were left in ‘insecure, or overcrowded and substandard housing such as boarding houses… providers of this type of accommodation do not always ensure adequate sanitation and overcrowding made physical distancing impossible”. And even if adequate sanitation and crowding levels were abided to, this caused problems, as the social distancing rules meant both a reduction in the number of people that the support systems could safely accommodate and an increase in cleaning costs, as stated by St Vincent de Paul. Additionally, while the number of people needing help have increased, volunteer numbers for such organisations decreased during COVID, as many volunteers are 70 plus and in the high-risk cohort for COVID.
Shockingly, despite these deteriorating conditions, in contrast with other comparator countries such as the UK or US, Australia’s national government made no coordination or funding input to homelessness emergency assistance programs. Less than ⅓ of all people who went through emergency assistance were supported beyond their short tenure of stay. Therefore, Homelessness NSW remarked to ACOSS pessimistically of the present situation, stating that due to COVID-19 that the: “housing and homelessness system is severely hampered in its ability to respond to crisis when it is itself constantly in crisis.” 
Habitat’s work recognises the impact to the homeless of COVID, and we seek to provide support to crisis accommodation such as through our Brush with Kindness program, that helps renovate housing for people in need. To find out more, and to support our efforts to provide safe and adequate housing for all, please visit