For the last eight years Will Hawes has delivered over 700 meals a week to the homeless, rough sleepers and working poor of Sydney, running a nightly barbecue near the CBD’s Central Station and weekend barbecues at Glebe’s Wentworth Park. Then COVID-19 hit, and he’s watched the work done by his charity, Will2Live, grind to a halt.
Public health measures have meant the end of the daily barbecues – at a time when the numbers of those in desperate need have soared. To Hawes’ relief, local financial trading firm Susquehanna Pacific stepped into the breach last month, providing $25,000 worth of free food representing 3500 meals. Every day, Hawes makes them up into food parcels and singlehandedly delivers them around Sydney.
It’s been a perilous time for his vulnerable clientele.
“One guy told me he had been tested for coronavirus and he had it… but a lot of homeless people think they aren’t going to catch it,” says Hawes.
“They say to me people from the public don’t talk to us, they avoid us. They think because they don’t hang out in circles where they could get it, like gyms, cafes, airports, they won’t get it.”
Hawes is one of an army of frontline workers grappling with the fallout from what is being touted as Australia’s biggest public health crisis.
Across the country, state governments and homelessness service providers are dealing with an urgent issue: with strict public health measures to stem community transmission in place, how do you get Australia’s estimated 100,000-strong homeless population to observe socially distancing, self-isolation, and basic sanitation measures when home may be an alleyway, the backseat of a car, a tent, or an overcrowded boarding house?
As Jenny Smith, chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, says, “when you’re sleeping rough, that’s impossible. Where is the tap, where is the towel, what do you use for soap?”
According to 2016 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately 116,427 Australians without a home. About 8200 sleep rough in Australia each night and it’s a demographic at particularly high risk to COVID-19 transmission given existing health issues and living conditions, Smith says.
Quick federal government measures including a moratorium on evictions and the boosting of the Jobseeker payment have been an effective launch pad for a raft of state and territory government emergency measures addressing homelessness across the country, she says, but the state-by-state response has been “highly variable”.
In Victoria, a $6 million funding boost is helping to provide temporary housing in hotels and motels for the homeless and private rental brokerage to those at risk of losing homes, with additional funding for health services, domestic violence victims and an $80 million rental assistance fund for residential renters.
There has been a similarly effective response in South Australia, says David Pearson, head of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, with nearly 400 people housed across Adelaide in hotels and motels as part of the state’s rapid response initiative.
In NSW, measures include a $34 million funding boost to prevent homelessness, alongside $10 million in support for organisations like OzHarvest and Foodbank, and $6 million for Lifeline’s operations in NSW.
“In the pandemic period we have been able to provide hotel and motel accommodation to over 2200 people across NSW,” says Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW. “There are a couple of thousand in crisis accommodation as well.”
“In the pandemic period we have been able to provide hotel and motel accommodation to over 2200 people across NSW,” says Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW.
In Queensland, a spokesperson for the Palaszczuk government told SBS that almost 1000 people have been provided a place to stay since the crisis began under the state’s $24.7 million COVID-19 homelessness response. Of this group, 260 had been placed in what is usually self-contained student accommodation.
In WA a pilot trial that placed 30 rough sleepers in temporary hotel accommodation (there is an estimated population of 1000 across the state) was scrapped, although existing projects for permanent affordable housing are being fast-tracked.
Overall, frontline workers say the national response has been stellar but urge the political and public spotlight to remain focused on critically overstretched homelessness services which are expected to deal with surging demand on the back of widespread unemployment once the crisis ebbs.
Anecdotally, workers are already seeing a spike in homelessness among single mothers and young workers, McKernan says.
COVID-19 has shown that homelessness in Australia is something that can be eradicated, says Pearson. There are accounts that up to half of all the country’s rough sleepers have been provided shelter during the epidemic thanks to the government and communities working swiftly in tandem; “a phenomenal achievement,” says Pearson.
However, maintaining the increased Jobseeker payment and investing in social housing in the longer term are key, he and others say.
It should sober us that COVID-19 has delivered an unexpected silver lining for many of our society’s most vulnerable, Smith says.
“What we are seeing is that people who have been sleeping rough or being in a shonky rooming house for years are actually having a decent roof over their head for the first time, and it’s taken COVID-19 for that to happen – what does that say about us?”
Filthy Rich & Homeless airs over three nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm and SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Filthy Rich & Homeless Season 3 will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and will be added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand, available immediately following its premiere on SBS. Last year SBS launched the Chinese and Arabic collections featuring a range of diverse dramas, documentaries and current affairs programs to enable growing multicultural communities to engage with local and international stories in their first language.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus