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If not now, when?


3 August 2020 at 5:13 pm
Karyn Walsh
COVID-19 has made visible the extent of couch surfing and rough sleeping in Australia, and brought about an increase in homelessness as more people are faced with unemployment and the loss of income. We need to commit to giving our most vulnerable a home, writes Karyn Walsh.


Karyn Walsh | 3 August 2020 at 5:13 pm


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If not now, when?
3 August 2020 at 5:13 pm

COVID-19 has made visible the extent of couch surfing and rough sleeping in Australia, and brought about an increase in homelessness as more people are faced with unemployment and the loss of income. We need to commit to giving our most vulnerable a home, writes Karyn Walsh.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people from all walks of life have shared how uncertainty, fear, isolation and social distancing have impacted on their quality of life, mental health and wellbeing. In addition, many people have been stood down from employment or lost their jobs and are now without income.  

While these realities are not new for those of us who witness the impact of homelessness on people’s lives, the circumstances and scale of the current situation, are of a new order. These new realities have hit hard on already overstretched homelessness and mental health systems, systems that have also faced their own challenges of providing services during this time.  

As a result of the impacts of COVID-19, many people who are dependent on both systems have had limited access to their normal network of services. Their even greater social isolation and disconnection has compounded their already existing stress and anxiety resulting in further despair and hopelessness. The uncertainty of the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many people without that sense of a “light at the end of the tunnel” that they often rely on. 

The dual experience of being without a home and living with the realities of a pandemic has left many people with even greater levels of anxiety and feelings of despair and hopelessness. People experiencing homelessness have been faced with disruption to basic services for food, personal hygiene, healthcare, and emotional support, and have had the added fear of compromised safety. Being without a home has taken place against a backdrop of actual or potential fines for non-compliance with social distancing regulations. 

Those dependent on couch surfing and the households that shelter them have been faced with fines for having too many people present and having visitors. At the same time across Australia, over 5,000 people have been placed in emergency accommodation in hotels, short-stay apartments or motels as governments enacted national emergency measures to enable public health directives to “stay at home”, maintain personal hygiene and permit the required social distancing.

While getting a roof over each person’s and family’s head was the right thing to do, it has not come without the enormous stress of being placed in a strange place, with the uncertainty of not knowing for how long, or knowing what comes next. 

Our phones, and I am sure those of many specialist homelessness services, have not stopped ringing. Each phone call is from a distressed person, sometimes suicidal, often in tears and experiencing violence from their partners, the stress of an old debt or being in conflict with an acquaintance. Some people have been found by strangers sitting in a public space in tears, not knowing what to do. For many, the use of drugs, both legal and illegal, is a constant companion to mitigate the pain and the sense of hopelessness that has a much longer and lingering presence than COVID-19. Likewise, many living in this world of unpredictability and entrenched poverty are also living with unresolved trauma to which the dark cloud of the personal, social and economic reality of COVID-19 has been added.

COVID-19 has not stopped domestic violence or the incredible isolation of a diagnosed mental illness. Mothers are still birthing and facing the isolation of not having family around them to be that needed source of reassurance. Other mothers stuck in a motel, are living through the heartbreaking loss of a child to the child protection system. People are still being released from prison into a world at a standstill with nowhere to go and no one to go to. Others have made the journey through rehab only to walk out into the world trying to navigate homelessness while hoping they do not relapse before they find a place to stay. Some families are struggling to sustain the demands of supporting their autistic child without access to services, or to support a partner who has just been discharged from a mental health stay in hospital. Many feel they are living in a pressure cooker and don’t know how to turn off the pressure. 

Our workers, like many others, have been out on the streets, in motels and doing home visits – maintaining connection as best they can. These workers also deserve the recognition given to all front-line workers who are working tirelessly to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable and the safety of the community from this virus. 

Community nurses and support workers deal with the hundreds of people needing somewhere to stay and assistance to manage their health while services are disrupted, as well as educating people on what is expected and why it is needed. Many people with acquired brain injury, impaired capacity and intellectual disability are without access to the internet and information and need support and assistance to live with the disconnection that comes with not being able to read.

As a nation, we have not yet embraced or understood the extent of the impact of homelessness or the public health issues that have resulted from the failure to bring about the change that is needed to give our most vulnerable Australians a home. Unfortunately, there is no sense of urgency to respond to homelessness. 

We know it is about the inadequate supply of affordable housing. However, it is also about the fragmented systems that create an inflow into homelessness; the lack of integration and connection between housing supply, design, and affordability with the tailored and specific services that a diverse population of people need, including people living with mental illness. 

Of the 600 people who we screened going into emergency accommodation, over 200 disclosed that they had been taken to hospital against their will in the past six months. To me this signals the urgency of the need for governments and community to take seriously and invest in a housing-first approach. Every department responsible for human services should be partnering with housing departments and providers to design a supportive housing system in Australia. Our most vulnerable citizens – people across the lifespan from birth to death, men, women and children – have been neglected for far too long. 

The current Emergency Accommodation Rapid Response has made visible the extent of couch surfing and rough sleeping as people have contacted services seeking accommodation. At the same time the economic impact of COVID-19 is already increasing the numbers of homelessness due to unemployment and the loss of income. In Australia, people with a mental illness and those with disabilities have been left behind for far too long. 

More than ever, there is a need for investment into housing coupled with all other relevant services; health, including mental health, addiction, intellectual and physical disability, child protection, family support, children’s services and corrections. They all need to come together and create a plan that will see the most vulnerable housed in safe, affordable and appropriate housing with built-in services for their safety, wellbeing and quality of life. 

We need to stop pretending to undertake co-design and do it with the voices of people with lived experience of homelessness, as well as family and friends. We need to listen to the practitioners and clinicians who work every day to support people. We have the evidence of what works we just need to make it happen. 

We know we need investment, both into rental subsidies in the private market and new housing, that is coupled with tailored support.

While the Australian government’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan is clearly welcome, its implementation needs to give priority to investment into integrated homelessness housing and mental health responses to address the accessibility of services, the complex mental health needs and the needs of vulnerable populations.  

Every local community needs a Mental Health and Housing Plan. Now is the perfect time for national, state and territory governments and local communities to tackle this as a priority. 

We need all our parliamentary and government leaders across this country to commit to giving everyone a home that will ensure their safety, and the safety of the whole of society and community. If we do this, then we can say we have learnt the lessons of this pandemic and that we are prepared to work for a future where everyone has a home and there is a real safety net that does not leave anyone behind.


Karyn Walsh  |  @ProBonoNews

Karyn Walsh is chair of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness and CEO of Micah Projects.

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