Back out on the street

Last year 40,000 rough sleepers were moved into temporary housing. Governments announced spending to fund social housing and there were hopes many, if not most, of these people would eventually move into their own homes.

Now rough sleeper numbers are back on the up.

In March, during the first wave, we saw a sweeping change tackling homelessness. Within a matter of weeks, NSW and Victoria state governments promised support packages totalling millions to the homeless sector to help them stop the virus’ spread among our most vulnerable.

Much of this money was spent to get long-term homeless people out of overcrowded crisis accommodation with dorm-style sleeping arrangements. In Sydney, about 2000 people were moved into 4-star hotels in a matter of days. Also in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane rough sleepers were moved into emergency accommodation in motels.

Now it has become clear that the overall scale is much larger than previously thought.

A new report states that in the first six months of the pandemic, the four states that launched emergency programs housed more than 40,000 rough sleepers and others.

The report, released by ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service) and the University of NSW, says that while a remarkable number of homeless people were placed in emergency accommodation at the height of the pandemic, only a third of rough sleepers have so far been transitioned into longer-term housing.

Renters facing eviction could end up on street

The report cautions a “significant proportion” will be homeless once more. “Helping people into longer-term housing posed a far greater challenge – largely because of the insufficient supply of social housing and the inadequacy of rent assistance in making private rental housing affordable,” it said.

National Shelter CEO Adrian Pisarski says, “People are being left with nowhere to go but a car, someone’s couch or the street. After we saw rough sleeping almost eliminated in several of Australia’s major cities in mid-2020, numbers are once again on the rise. The struggle that state governments have faced in dealing with this situation once again exposes our intensifying shortage of social and affordable housing.”

The report also analysed the experiences of renters at the height of the pandemic, including the effectiveness of state-based eviction moratoriums and rental laws.

Survey evidence shows many property owners refused to reduce rents. At least one in four renters lost income during the pandemic, but no more than 16% (and possibly as few as 8%) got a rent variation. And many variations were only in the form of rent deferrals, not reductions.

Many were unable to secure rent reductions and instead had rent deferred. The survey data imply at least 75,000 tenants, and possibly as many as 175,000, have been accumulating deferral-generated arrears. These mounting debts could put some at risk of losing their home when eviction moratoriums end. That’s early in 2021 in most states and territories.

No help from above

The researchers say, “Our research also highlights the unusually small direct contribution of the Australian government to protecting homeless people during the pandemic. Even in other federations – Canada and the United States – national governments played a significant role.

“In Australia, the Commonwealth government made no direct input to covering the substantial costs involved. Nor did it play any part in even monitoring, let alone co-ordinating, the remarkable efforts of the active states.”

In its submission for the government’s May budget, ACOSS said income support should be raised in line with the pension. That would see a single unemployed person receive about $944 a fortnight, taking the payment to $67 a day instead of $40.

“The government can put in place a permanent and adequate level of income support and bolster state social housing construction,” ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie says.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has also called for an increase to the dole.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg last week refused to commit to increasing income support when the coronavirus supplement ends next month.