As Victoria’s unprecedented bushfire catastrophe continues, we need to reflect on the impact, both immediate and longer term.
The impact on people living in poverty and on homelessness will be significant.
Right now hundreds of Victorians’ homes have been destroyed, tens of thousands of people are temporarily unhoused because their homes are threatened by bushfire, and three Victorians have tragically lost their lives. Victoria has also sustained significant environmental and cultural damage as unique places, including country sacred to Aboriginal communities, has been damaged. These frightening circumstances are devastating for all those directly affected.
Council to Homeless Persons (CHP) extends its deepest sympathies to those experiencing these impacts, and our appreciation to both the fire fighters and other emergency services workers fighting this threat, and the community members rallying to the relief and support effort. To keep up to date about fire risks in your area go to emergency.vic.gov.au/respond.
In addition to threats to life and homes, Victorians are also at risk of exposure to smoke and dust in the air from the bushfires. Staying indoors to minimise exposure to air pollution is not easy or even possible for people without a home, particularly for the more than 1,100 people sleeping rough in Victoria each night. For people experiencing homelessness, here are some resources for immediate relief and support in harsh conditions.
There is also an elevated risk to health and life for people who cannot afford to escape fire threats, or who cannot practically get out. Processes to respond to the risks for vulnerable people were significantly improved following the Black Saturday fires, and community agencies have quickly mobilised support in bushfire areas to assist. However, early evidence indicates that ensuring the safety of people with disability and those living in poverty, or without a home, needs further development.
Many people living in bushfire-affected areas are also experiencing other shocks that to date have received less attention. These include the impact of the cost of evacuation and relocation. To help address immediate costs ACOSS have called for an increase in disaster relief payments, which have not increased since 2006, and collated this information about what help is available.
The reality for people whose finances are very tight, and who have had to redirect money to buy petrol, food while on the move, or temporary accommodation, is that they may not now be able to keep up with rent payments. These circumstances will elevate their risk of homelessness over the coming months.
The fires will also have an extraordinary economic impact on Victoria, and disrupt many people’s earning capacity and ability to sustain their housing. This will far exceed the impact of previous fire emergencies, because the geographic scale of these 2020 fires is far greater, and some fires are expected to burn for many months. Those relying on seasonal work in tourism, agriculture and other impacted industries, will all be affected, and face an elevated risk of homelessness.
Evidence also indicates that domestic and family violence increases following emergencies.
The impact of this surge in violence will be exacerbated, because of the extraordinary pressure on emergency accommodation options, with motels and other temporary accommodation generally fully occupied by evacuees and emergency services personnel. Difficulty accessing temporary crisis accommodation tends to extend well into the recovery period, as motels are used to accommodate temporary workers involved in rebuilding efforts.
Over the longer term, the effect of climate change on increased risk and intensity of bushfires and other extreme weather events will create population shifts, as people permanently flee from locations presenting enduring risk. This will increase pressure on housing markets in our cities, which are already squeezing out the most vulnerable households into homelessness, and add to the number of people without a home.
The medium and longer term impacts of climate change will increase homelessness in our community. They require a structural and long-term response, particularly in the delivery of social housing, but also in the response to domestic and family violence.
With 80,000 Victorians already on the social housing waiting list, we cannot afford to fail to address increased need, as people can’t rebuild their lives after fire without a home to live in.