Hidden homelessness during COVID-19

Homeless man, Central Station
Homeless man Michael, outside Sydney’s Central Station (By Layton Holley)

Alex was just seventeen years old when she was kicked out of home because of her gender and sexual identity.

For the past two years she has been homeless, spending time between living on the streets, in crisis hotels, motels and couch surfing.

“You don’t exactly know what living at rock bottom is until you’ve slept with a pillow and a sleeping bag on the side of a road,” Alex says.

Alex, like many people currently experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic, has been further impacted due to lockdowns around the country.

“Whilst accessing services, there have been time and people limits in certain areas,” she said.

“Before COVID you could sit down and have a meal, talk to someone and have a shower. Once COVID hit, you are there for a maximum of five minutes, you pick up your bag of food and you go.”

Amy Lanham, a Communications Manager for Anglicare NSW South, NSW West and ACT says it’s a tricky situation for people who are homeless right now.

“For a lot of them, they are sleeping in cars and spending their time in cars. It’s a real concern.”

“They’re not necessarily getting the information they need. So if there are supports available to them, they don’t realise that they’re there.”

“They still have the same level of need which will probably heighten further because of the uncertainty and anxiety due to what’s happening around the pandemic.”

Australia is facing a housing emergency further exacerbated by the effects of COVID, with increasing house prices, rising rents and low availability.

“Even temporary accommodation for people is limited. It’s going to affect the most vulnerable and we know the most vulnerable at this particular point are those that are homeless or at housing risk,” Amy says.

Young people like Alex who are homeless are struggling to find long term, safe accommodation.

Currently, she is living in crisis housing and applying for every rental within her price range that’s available, but is struggling because she doesn’t have rental experience.

“It’s not the easiest. People need rental experience to get this place, I don’t have rental experience, how do I get rental experience if I don’t have any?”

David Pearson, CEO of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness says the number one cause of homelessness is ignoring and not dealing with the issue.

“The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on people experiencing homelessness has been pretty rough for a lot of people.”

“At the end of the day, homes are what people need and those still are very hard to come by.”

David believes that homelessness is an issue that can be solved with the help from governments and accurate data.

“We don’t actually know how many people are homeless. We have estimates, but that’s from five years ago.”

The ABS recorded an estimated 116,000 people were homeless on census night in 2016.

“There is a smaller subset, which is those people on the streets and those who are in improvised dwellings and sleeping in their cars. Out of those 116,000, it’s only an estimated 8,000 people. We’ve provided hotel rooms to over 8,000 people in the last two years across Australia. This is not beyond us to solve the problem,” David says.

Data reveals an estimated 424 people experiencing homelessness died whilst sleeping rough on Australian streets over the past year.

“If 424 people had died in a plane crash this year, the government would move  heaven and earth to find out what happened, and makes sure it doesn’t happen again,” David says.

“We know that people who experience homelessness die thirty years younger than people with housing and tragically we know a large majority of those people have illnesses that could have been treated or prevented.”

“The government should urgently set up a framework for measuring this. It’s not beyond us as a country as wealthy and prosperous as ours to measure these things better. We can learn from the data and use it to drive changes.”

In Australia, homelessness services are given support from health agencies to roll-out the flu vaccine each year.

Questions have been raised as to whether at risk groups such as people experiencing homelessness have been considered in the delivery of the COVID vaccine.

“We can’t forget this cohort of people who aren’t top of mind when it comes to vaccine roll-outs. They are going to be vulnerable, their health is going to be at risk,” Amy said.

“Engaging with organisations who have that direct connection with people who are homeless are going to be really important.”

Despite all of her struggles, Alex had access to services and a social worker who helped supply her with the flu shot and COVID vaccine.

She hopes in the future to have a stable home and to one day speak with others about what it’s like being homeless.