Rough sleepers moved off street as homelessness tipped to spike

Melbourne’s bracing for a spike in homelessness, as rough sleepers are moved into motels and plans are made to quarantine those suffering from COVID-19 .

The moves come as more services are forced to shut or downsize because of nationwide social distancing restrictions.

Rough sleeper David, 51, says he isn’t worried but noted less people were donating money.Credit:Jason South

The virus poses a special risk to the homeless, who are often unable to self-isolate and don’t have facilities to regularly wash their hands. There is concern it could rapidly spread through this vulnerable population and increase the state’s overall infection rate.

Meanwhile, as Australia teeters in the edge of a recession, already critical homeless numbers are expected to grow.

Dr Sharon Parkinson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Urban Transitions at Swinburne University, said newly unemployed people could find themselves straight on the streets because of social distancing requirements.

“There will be a shift in the current trends of homelessness,” she said.

“So going from those staying temporarily with others, living in crowded dwellings, to more street-based homelessness, literally having nowhere to go or stay.

“And that could potentially be in the thousands.”

Melbourne City Council’s lord mayor Sally Capp said there was likely to be an increase in homelessness right across the inner city as large numbers of businesses closed and jobs were lost.

“We understand the demand may increase significantly over the coming weeks,” she said.

The state government has doubled crisis accommodation funding as part of a $6 million boost to the sector to address the looming crisis.

It has also flagged it will set up quarantine centres for infected homeless people, but has not released their locations or whether they will be mandatory.

Homeless service Launch Housing has created a special COVID-19 taskforce that is urgently taking rough sleepers off the street.

Outreach coordinator Mark Fitzgerald said about 65 had been moved into motels so far, at a cost of about $700 a week each.

'That doesn’t just put them at risk, it puts all of us at risk.'

“We've been directed by [the Department of Health and Human Services] to just put in as many people as we can,” he said.

“‘Let's get them off the street. We'll worry about money later.’”

However, Mr Fitzgerald is concerned they will reach a point where they run out of motels rooms and believes the long-term solution is more affordable housing.

He said rough sleepers were more likely to catch and spread the disease, plus they were more susceptible to becoming severely ill or dying due to underlying health conditions.

Centrelink queues have stretched around blocks in Australian cities this week.Credit:Jason South

“Unfortunately it’s taken a pandemic to show that everybody needs shelter,” he said.

“And when some people don't … that doesn’t just put them at risk, it puts all of us at risk.”

The Salvation Army’s Lighthouse Cafe on Bourke Street has had to cut its overnight capacity as it divided its space into metre squares with tape, putting some out onto the streets.

Major Brendan Nottle said up to 170 people used to sleep at the venue, but now that number was down by around a third.

He said clients were being helped to find alternative housing and that the Salvos were providing takeaway meals, care packages, hand cleaning stations and video streaming calls.

A long queue could be seen outside Fitzroy’s Home of Mercy this week. Catholic Services Victoria chief executive Robina Bradley said it had been flooded after other services shut.

Launch's taskforce is also trying to convey the seriousness of the virus to rough sleepers, but not all have been able to take it in due to a constant state of crisis, Mr Fitzgerald said.

The Age spoke to about half a dozen in the CBD, all of whom said they were more concerned with the effects of city closures.

“I’m not worried,” said David, age 51, as he sat among a large group of rough sleepers sitting close together on the corner on Bourke and Swanston streets.

What is concerning him is the decreasing number of potential donors on Melbourne’s streets.

“No one is giving us money because they are worried about this disease," he said.

There was frustration among the group, with one saying he could resort to violence and others agreeing.

Big Issue seller Michael lives in a backpackers hostel but if he lost his income would quickly become homeless. And sales have been down.

“It’s certainly troubling,” he said. “If we do have a lockdown, then I won’t get people to sell my magazine to and I’m going to end up on the streets.

“How are you going to self-isolate when you need to make money to survive?”

A man in his mid-20s, with blond curls framing a bruised and bloodshot eye, said he’d go to a quarantine centre if he contracted the virus.

“It’s a smart idea,” he said.

However, his mate, a 41-year-old Indigenous man, who was huddled in a doorway close by, said he would struggle being confined due to his history.

“Someone like me would stress out in a place like that,” he said.

The Age has either left out last names or entire names at the the request of the people interviewed.

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