Victoria’s peak body for homelessness advocacy is urging the state government to boost funding for outreach workers to identify and assist people sleeping rough with a horror bushfire season looming.
Council to Homeless Persons CEO Deborah Di Natale says many parts of Victoria including Gippsland, Wimmera and South-West Victoria do not have funded outreach workers and this makes it impossible to know just how many people are sleeping rough in regional areas.
“This summer is forecast to be a horror fire season across swathes of Australia, underscoring the desperate need for more outreach workers. Many regions, including Gippsland, do not have any outreach capacity to identify and help people, or there’s one worker for 100 people ,” she said.
“This comes as services are at capacity and forced to make heartbreaking choices about who to help. When someone camps in the bush, it’s because they have nowhere else to turn.
“This is incredibly dangerous, and can become a life and death situation in a flood or bushfire emergency because frontline homelessness services have no way of knowing where or how many people are sleeping rough in the bush.
“If an evacuation order is issued, people may not know or have the means to leave. At the same time, emergency services do not necessarily have any way of knowing people are there in the first place.
“We know that a lot of people came in from sleeping rough in the bush after last year’s floods. Bushfires could be much more deadly.
“But it’s not just a problem during a bushfire or flood. People are still extremely isolated, have little if any protection from health-related illnesses and may be cut off from help in the event of a medical emergency.”
Ms Di Natale said the most recent Census in 2021 showed there were 47 people per 10,000 experiencing homelessness.
“But the Census figures would not have captured everyone without any address such as those sleeping in their car or rough. On top of that, homelessness has since spiralled out of control because of the deepening rental crisis,” she said.
“It means that we simply do not know exactly how many people are sleeping rough in the bush. Additional funding for outreach workers can help plug this gap and save lives.
“We’re aware that the demographic of people sleeping rough in the bush has changed in recent times. There are more families with children, a direct result of Victoria’s rental affordability crisis, and family violence.
“We desperately need 60,000 new social homes over the decade. But while they are being built, the Victorian Government must prioritise funding for outreach workers to keep people experiencing homelessness safe this summer.”
Assertive outreach is an active and persistent approach by workers to find and engage with rough sleepers or homeless people where they sleep or frequent in order to establish a relationship of trust.