Melbourne public housing residents demand eased restrictions, removal of police amid lockdown confusion

Residents are demanding to be allowed to leave the towers for essential purposes like other people in Melbourne coronavirus hotspots.

Children from a window inside a unit at the public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne, Monday, July 6, 2020.

Children from a window inside a unit at the public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Melbourne. Source: AAP

Residents from the nine public housing towers in Melbourne that are under Australia’s strictest coronavirus lockdown are demanding restrictions be eased and the heavy police presence be withdrawn. 

About 3,000 residents in Flemington and North Melbourne public housing flats were put into a hard lockdown without notice on Saturday and, unlike other people living in the same postcodes, are not allowed to leave their buildings for any reason.

The residents are being monitored by 500 police officers per shift - a ratio of one officer per six residents.

On Tuesday, Voices from the Blocks - a coalition of residents and family and community members from the public housing estates - issued a statement detailing five key requests.

Tenants want the lockdown to be downgraded to Stage 3 restrictions which allows residents to leave the house for essential work or school, exercise, medical care or caregiving and shopping for supplies. 

They are also asking for police to be withdrawn from inside the towers, better hygiene standards to be implemented and testing sites set up outside the buildings, rather than in the foyers, to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19.


Donation confusion

The release of the residents' demands comes as confusion and problems persist with the response, including reports that donated goods are not being allowed inside.

On Monday night, residents posted footage and photos to social media that appeared to show SES workers removing bags of donated goods from one of the public housing towers in Flemington.

“Voices from the Blocks watched in horror last night as food, medicine, and essentials like nappies and baby formula were suddenly confiscated by authorised officers,” a statement issued by the coalition on Tuesday morning read.

“This was after more than 48 hours of needing these essential items, and having to rely on grassroots, community lead efforts.”

The Department of Health and Human Services said they were aware of "some delays with accepting donations and deliveries which caused confusion at some housing estates that are in lockdown."

"We are currently working with the parties involved to make sure food and other supplies are being provided without further interruption," a DHHS spokesperson said.

"We apologise for the inconvenience and frustration caused and thank the residents for their cooperation and patience."

Voices from the Blocks said the state government had mismanaged the lockdown, leaving local community members “to plug in the gap”.

“The community of the North Melbourne, Flemington and Kensington estates have shown up over the last three days offering translations when there were no interpreters, culturally appropriate food, and much needed medicine," it said.

'Treated us like animals'

Hana* owns a healthcare business and lives at one of the towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington with her two brothers and her mother.

She said the family has received no information about the lockdowns from authorities since Sunday. There is a great sense of confusion among residents and many feel they are being scapegoated, she added.

“The lockdown is not our issue, it’s how they did it is what we’re more frustrated with,” she told SBS News.

“They’ve treated us like animals, like we have no rights and we’re irrelevant to them. Some of us are teachers, people with degrees and businesses. I have clients that need me right now that I can’t attend to.

“COVID-19 is a pandemic all over the world, but we feel targeted because we are minorities.”

A view of a public housing tower along Racecourse Road in Flemington, Monday, July 6, 2020.
One of the iconic high-rise public housing towers in Flemington. Source: AAP

Hana said parts of her tower are dirty and she’s seen police not practicing social distancing.

“The laundry is filthy, there’s no cleaners in the building. They have one small pack of hand sanitiser in the foyer for everyone - and how do we know the police don’t have COVID themselves?”

Hana said she hopes her mother, who has recently had knee surgery, will be allowed outside to exercise soon.

“We live in these buildings where there is no space and my mum needs exercise daily. Where is she going to walk now? This is going to stuff up her recovery process.

“We have no idea how long we are going to be here for … We understand we’re going to be stuck here, but at least make it better for us.”

A view of one of the public housing towers in North Melbourne, Tuesday, July 7, 2020
A public housing tower in North Melbourne. The Victorian Ombudsman said last year human rights were breached when nine towers were abruptly locked down Source: AAP

On Monday, the Victorian government said service and support for the tenants was “ramping up”, with hundreds of packs of essential supplies and thousands of meals being delivered.

“We’re working as quickly as possible to ensure every household has what they need,” Housing Minister Richard Wynne said.

The full list of public housing tenants' demands are:

1. For all public housing estates to be placed under Stage 3 COVID-19 restrictions like our neighbours so we can still leave our homes for work or education, exercise, medical care or caregiving, or shopping for supplies.

 2. For the Victorian Government to withdraw all 500 Police and Authorised Officers from the inside of all the public housing estates

3. For the Victorian Government to implement infection prevention measures such as regular disinfection and cleaning of communal spaces, and distribution of masks.

4. For the Victorian Government to set up testing sites in walking distance of the public housing estates instead of in the foyer inside the public housing estate buildings in order to prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19

5. For the Victorian government to coordinate services in support of current community led activities that are responding to resident’s food, medical, financial, mental health and social service needs

Residents in affected public housing towers who need access to support and assistance should call the Housing Call Centre on 1800 961 054. If you need a translator, first call 131 450. Both services are 24/7. More information can be found .

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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*Name has been changed

6 min read
Published 7 July 2020 at 11:49am
By Ahmed Yussuf, Evan Young