by Kate Colvin, Policy and Communications Manager, Council to Homeless Persons
This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.
The pandemic began
In February 2020, when Covid‑19 pandemic restrictions began, the homelessness sector shared a collective horror at what might transpire. Covid-19 health risks loomed for the thousands of Victorians living in crowded homes, rooming houses with shared bathrooms, or sleeping rough. The mental toll hovered over those stuck in lockdown in abusive or violent homes, with the respite offered by couch surfing largely unavailable. Alongside those risks was the menace of financial calamity for people who lost employment overnight, and who could no longer afford their mortgage or rent.
To some extent all these impacts transpired. People living in crowded homes, including many workers in frontline roles, had much higher infection rates. Many families faced financial ruin as their income plummeted, and the tide of distress now evident in our schools is the devastating consequence for children and young people who have survived a traumatic time.
But Covid‑19 also ushered in extraordinary change and, in many respects, an easier economic time for people on the lowest incomes. In that first rush of the pandemic, Council to Homeless Persons and Homelessness Australia joined with other sector peak bodies and campaigns in calling for additional income support and rental protections to keep people safe. We called for safe housing options for those in crowded or unsafe housing, or sleeping rough, and we highlighted the enormous health risks posed to people without homes if they were exposed to COVID‑19.
A new era of income support
Imagine our surprise on 22 March 2020 when Australia’s conservative and fiercely anti-welfare Federal Government effectively doubled JobSeeker and other payments, by paying all existing and new recipients an additional $550 per fortnight Coronavirus Supplement. Alongside the higher payments for job seekers, activity tests and wait periods were waived.
This took place on the same day that the national cabinet announced Stage 1 restrictions on social gatherings, and effectively shut down hospitality and entertainment venues.
A week later, when Australians were urged to stay at home, the JobKeeper program was announced, providing even higher income support to keep many current workers employed.
While these reforms were remarkable, in practice the Coronavirus Supplement payments didn’t begin until 27 April 2020, more than a month after they were announced. This left the hundreds of thousands of Australians who lost employment in February or March to cover at least two rent or mortgage payments and other expenses, without additional support beyond basic Centrelink payments.
International students and other temporary residents, many of whom were impacted by the first restrictions on international travel in February, were excluded from eligibility for income support, and left destitute.
In this initial phase of the pandemic, many people moved out of their homes to save money on rent — either into a cheaper rental, or in with family or friends. Thousands of temporary residents left Australia.
The Victorian Government Responded
The scale and breadth of the housing and homelessness response to Covid‑19 from the Victorian Government was extraordinary and led the nation. Strong alliances and collaboration among community sector peak bodies meant the Government heard strong and consistent messages about the need for legislative protection and financial support for renters, for safe accommodation that enabled social distancing for people without homes, and for specialised health supports. But in addition to introducing these reforms, many other important measures were conceived and announced by the Government, without the sector having to clamour for the resources.
Throughout this period of enormous change, implementation of new systems and programs was streamlined by regular open and frank dialogue between senior public servants leading the Covid‑19 homelessness response and sector leaders. During this phase, many problems that arose were ironed out, or additional resources found and directed to gaps.
Below is a snapshot of the major programs that made a difference, and their strengths and weaknesses.
1. Eviction moratorium and financial support to renters
On 24 April 2020 the Victorian Parliament passed legislation that disallowed evictions for rental arrears incurred due to Covid‑19. This established a process to encourage landlords to agree to rental reductions, placed a moratorium on rental increases, and enabled tenants to terminate leases they could no longer afford without penalty. The Government also introduced a package of financial support to renters.
What worked well: unlike other states, Victoria’s process for negotiation of reduced rental agreements included arbitration and the power to force landlords to reduce rent. The financial supports to renters were also relatively generous.
What worked less well: by the time the legislation passed, a month after lockdowns commenced, many renters had already moved if they couldn’t afford their rent or agreed to a rental deferral rather than a reduction.
2. Provision of increased emergency accommodation
Throughout 2020 and 2021 the Victorian Government significantly increased resources for emergency accommodation, enabling rough sleepers and people in crowded or unsafe rooming houses to move into single rooms in hotels.
What worked well: the standard of accommodation provided to people without homes during this period was generally of high quality. The length of stay was also significantly longer than either before or after Covid‑19 lockdowns, when extremely scarce resources mean single people without homes are generally only accommodated for short periods in rooming houses or backpackers’ accommodation.
What worked less well: resourcing for emergency accommodation rose and fell as Covid‑19 lockdowns came and went, and the sector had to fight tooth and nail to keep people in safe accommodation. In practice, gaps between tranches of new funding meant funding ran out on several occasions and workers had to tell residents to leave hotels, even where there were no decent alternatives. This was traumatising for both residents and exhausted homelessness workers. Many of the hotels used for this purpose accommodated over 20 people without homes, with some providing rooms to as many as 100 formerly homeless residents. This meant there were large concentrations of people living in small single rooms without any onsite support, and with nothing to do, in the middle of a pandemic that was stressful for everyone. The concentrations of people created new risks for many residents including conflict, mental health issues, and drug use.
3. The Hotel Emergency Accommodation Response Team (HEART)
During the period that the Victorian Government provided resources to accommodate people without homes in hotels during lockdowns, thousands of people sought this assistance. The process of applying for hotel accommodation saw huge increases in the volume of people seeking emergency accommodation, overwhelmed access points, and unprecedented pressure on the sector’s support capacity. This created distress for clients who often ended up in a hotel room without a worker to help them access food, health care, or other essential supports. Following dialogue about the problems getting support to people in hotels, the Victorian Government provided additional resourcing to each of Victoria’s homelessness regions to establish the HEART, a triage and response team of local services to assess and prioritise support resources across the hotels. The Government also resourced new positions to increase the capacity of access points and support teams, and funded health and security staff to work in hotels with high concentration of people without homes.
What worked well: homelessness services in each HEART worked together to share resources and meet clients’ needs as best they could during those unprecedented times. Staff and services demonstrated enormous generosity and flexibility to adapt to changing Covid‑19 management rules, the challenges of managing home schooling as well as work, and the emotional and health roller-coasters of pandemic life experienced by both clients and staff. The aptly named HEARTs were a fine example of sector ingenuity and government partnership at a difficult time. New resources providing onsite support in hotels and increased staffing were also timely and effective.
What worked less well: provision of support to the most vulnerable clients in hotels via the HEARTs transitioned into support through From Homelessness to a Home (H2H), once H2H was funded. But, inevitably, recruiting the hundreds of workers needed to deliver H2H took time, and the transition resulted in some temporary capacity gaps and confusion about who was eligible for H2H and who was responsible for clients while eligibility was being assessed, or who were not eligible for the program.
4. Additional resources for private rental brokerage
During Covid‑19 lockdowns, rents in Melbourne plummeted and vacancy rates soared. People on income support also finally had an income that meant they could afford private rental. That meant that additional Government investment in support and brokerage to help people without homes into tenancies was a highly successful intervention, and hundreds of people were able to gain a new tenancy.
What worked well: the Private Rental Assistance Program (PRAP) was an unqualified success.
What worked less well: There was enormous demand for this support. With more PRAP workers, even more people could have been assisted into rentals. Some tenancies were also unable to be sustained when the Federal Government cut income support payments. More recently, rising rents and a tighter rental market have seen more tenants squeezed out.
5. The Big Housing Build
On 15 November 2020, the Victorian Government made a $5.3 billion commitment to social and affordable housing investment to build more than 12,000 social and affordable housing properties over four years. This fantastic initiative aimed to resolve two issues —declining construction activity and the urgent need for social housing.
What worked well: the Big Housing Build included new resources for projects to begin immediately, and so quickly brought new social housing online.
What worked less well: the work of redeveloping ageing social housing estates requires people to move out of existing homes into other social housing properties until construction is complete. In the intervening period, fewer social housing vacancies are available to new tenants, even though more housing will be available longer-term.
6. From Homelessness to a Home (H2H)
After months of providing hotel accommodation during Melbourne’s extended 2020 lockdowns, in July 2020 the Victorian Government responded to sustained advocacy to provide long-term options for the highly vulnerable group who had been and would continue to be unable to find homes in private rental housing. This included around 2,000 households with low incomes, significant health and mental health issues, disability, experiences of family violence and/ or long histories of homelessness. The announcement included a promise of permanent homes and ongoing flexible support.
What worked well: H2H delivered housing and support to more than 1,800 households. It provided a secure pathway out of homelessness and the support people needed to connect with other services and to settle into their new lives. Among those provided with H2H packages are a great number of people whose health radically improved, who were able to get into paid work, to reunite with children, and to finally have the space to enjoy life.
What worked less well: H2H was a large and innovative new program that sought to match the scale and intensity of response to the level of need. The size was one of the program’s best features, but it was also a source of system challenges. The process of tendering such a large new program created delays, with final contracts to deliver the packages not finalised until early 2021. During the intervening period, regional Victoria’s housing market heated up and it was no longer possible to headlease hundreds of private rentals, limiting people’s housing options in regional areas to scarce social housing vacancies.
The delay also resulted in transition pains, with people waiting to take up an H2H package needing ongoing hotel accommodation and support from a sector that didn’t have enough support resources to respond. Services also struggled to bring on the hundreds of specialist workers needed to deliver the program, sometimes having to move staff across from other areas, with flow-on impacts across the homelessness service system. More recently, the initial promise of permanent homes and ongoing support faded in Government memory, and further advocacy was needed for the resources required to extend expiring H2H head leases and support capacity and avoid people being returned to homelessness.
Ultimately, the benefits of H2H far exceed these teething problems many times over. It has been a major structural flaw in Victoria’s human service system for decades that people who need a home and ongoing flexible support to thrive are unable to get either the home or the support they need. Research on the group provided H2H revealed they had previously been in high intensity contact with family violence, health, mental health, child protection, justice, disability, homelessness, and other human services, at enormous distress to themselves and significant cost to government.
The fact is that H2H has all the elements needed to build on its many successes and to develop into the jewel in the crown that solves this endemic human services gap. Yet, currently, only people who were still in hotels at the end of 2020 are eligible for H2H. This is despite the flow of other highly vulnerable people needing housing and support who have since sought homelessness services. Advocacy for the resources to respond to this need with an ongoing H2H style program will remain a top CHP priority.
Other great Covid-19 homelessness initiatives
Covid‑19 Isolation and Recovery Facilities were developed by the Victorian Government to provide non‑hospital-based care to people without homes who caught Covid‑19. These services were funded to provide specialist homelessness and health support to highly vulnerable homeless clients. They met a critical gap and were an important part of the work to protect the health of vulnerable people. As the numbers of people requiring this support have declined, the service has been extended to provide step-down health care for homeless clients who don’t need to be in hospital but who do need accommodation and health support.
Targeted vaccination services for people without homes were funded by the Victorian Government to increase vaccination rates among the homeless population. Vaccination teams including nurses, peer support workers and homelessness workers set up in the foyers and went room to room in hotels accommodating people without homes or visited hotels with mobile outreach. Teams were based in drop-in meal and health services, homelessness sector workers had access to taxi vouchers to get people to vaccination centres, and targeted information was developed to encourage vaccination.
The Working for Victoria program was developed by the Victorian Government to grow Victorian employment during the Covid‑19 economic downturn and to deliver additional homelessness workers. The program funded around 130 additional positions for a six‑month period, mostly in entry level roles, and provided much needed extra capacity. Many of the workers continued to be employed in the sector following the completion of the program. A more recent initiative has sought to replicate this success, but by supporting job seekers into existing vacancies rather than additional roles. This has worked less well, but ongoing dialogue means we remain hopeful of developing a new internship program for final year students from relevant courses to take up paid roles in the specialist homelessness sector.
The Covid‑19 pandemic demonstrated the enormity of what can be achieved when governments choose to act. Higher income support, more social housing investment, new Housing First programs, better protections for renters, targeted health programs to meet the needs of vulnerable people, and more emergency accommodation all meant that, during the peak of Victoria’s Covid‑19 pandemic, the homelessness landscape was radically transformed. In Victoria, this radically different landscape also included incredible collaboration and innovation from homelessness services in partnership with government, immense effort and care from the homelessness workforce, and incredible adaptability and resourcefulness from people accessing homelessness services.
As we move into a new era where the peak of the pandemic has passed, only some of these programs have endured, but the knowledge of what we achieved and learnt together remains. We can take these insights into our ongoing efforts to end homelessness for good.
This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.