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COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate: but it’s not equal

Olivia Killeen, Project Officer Social Policy on how COVID-19 widens the equality gap

30 April 2020

By Olivia Killeen, Project Officer Social Policy and Strategic Projects

The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and widened the inequality gap in our society. People without a home, older people, people on low incomes, and people living with a disability are being hit the hardest by the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19.

You can’t #stayhome if you don’t have one. It is impossible to self-isolate when you’re sleeping rough - it’s that simple. Government restrictions on physical distancing and self-isolation mean sticking together with others while sleeping rough is an offence, and completely unjust for people experiencing homelessness, on top of the additional risks in contracting the virus. For people who live in overcrowded accommodation, like rooming houses, having to share kitchens and bathrooms with others means they cannot physically distance from others.

There’s currently an escalated demand for accommodation, and the Launch Housing Rough Sleeper Initiative (RSI) has placed more than 700 people sleeping rough into motels and hotels since late March. Staff members from Sacred Heart Mission’s GreenLight Supportive Housing and St Kilda Outreach Team (SKIOT) programs have been providing support to Launch to help people sleeping rough to get housed, stay housed and connect with support services to connect with long-term programs to break the cycle of homelessness.

A COVID-19 recovery centre for people experiencing homelessness

The Victorian Government has announced an $8.8 million investment into ‘pop-up’ isolation facilities, repurposing unused buildings for rough sleepers and others who need to self-isolate or recover from COVID-19. SHM is one of the organisations funded, and will receive clinical support from St Vincent’s Hospital. This is an excellent investment that will support people who have no other way to follow government regulations around the pandemic, and we look forward to working with the Government on this exciting project. Everyone deserves a roof over their heads, and the ability to keep themselves safe, especially in this difficult time.

We know that the virus hits people who are disadvantaged the hardest. But the social concept of what poverty looks like in a developed country like Australia is hard to quantify or even imagine for most people - but it becomes more obvious in a crisis.

People on low incomes can’t afford to stock up on essentials - if they live in a small home, they don’t have the space; and can only buy what they can carry if they don’t have a car; let alone having the money to buy medicine in advance, or several weeks worth of groceries in one visit. Many of our clients can’t afford to run a refrigerator, meaning they live on the pre-packaged and canned goods that others have been buying in droves, and they are left with nothing. The poverty line is relative, and this is a prime example of what it looks like in the first world.

Thousands risk falling into homelessness

Social isolation is another form of disadvantage - not having someone to talk to, or the means to communicate with others via technologies like video chat.

One SHM client told me recently they are a germaphobe - when they first heard of the coronavirus, they became so concerned and anxious that they locked themselves in their tiny apartment for two weeks - without contacting anyone, and with little access to food. I hate to imagine how they’re feeling now. As more services have closed over recent weeks, the crisis has escalated feelings of loneliness among those who were already socially isolated.

So many Australian jobs rely on people being able to move around and interact with others, leading to many businesses being forced to pivot or close temporarily to avoid becoming unviable when the worst of the crisis has passed. Thousands, if not millions of people have lost or will lose their jobs, struggle to make ends meet and risk falling into homelessness.

When unemployment rises, so does poor mental and physical health and wellbeing, and family violence; as well as personal debt that may take years to regain control of. It is great to see the government investing in key human services in response to this pandemic in these difficult times - Telehealth for GPs, mental health support, and family violence services are some examples. The Federal Government’s massive changes to income support (the JobSeeker Payment, and the COVID-19 stimulus payments), as well as provisions to prevent rental evictions during this crisis are extremely positive too.

We cannot go back to $40 a day for income support

But these changes were long overdue - experts in several fields have been advocating for increased income support for decades. It is a shame that it took a global pandemic for these changes to be realised, and they need to be sustained in the long term. It has been made very clear these changes (especially the increased JobSeeker payments and altered application criteria) are only temporary. We know people cannot live on $40 per day, and we cannot go back to that world.

Preventing evictions for six months is a good start, but it may take years for our economy and social fabric to recover from this crisis. It will take time for some people to regain employment, especially if jobs they had no longer exist. This risks pushing more people into homelessness in the medium and long-term unless the Government continues to provide support after the peak of the crisis is over. We need community advocates to keep these important conversations going. If you’re lucky enough to keep working during the pandemic, take a moment to think of others who are not.

The Federal Government’s economic stimulus payments for charities, and the JobKeeper payments will help subsidise wages for a portion of our workforce. This is welcome, and appreciated. Unfortunately, we’ve had to close our op shops, which bring in revenue to SHM to help fund our service provision.

Homelessness services like SHM were already experiencing pressing demand, and this is only getting worse during this pandemic.

We need more support or we will not be able to continue to provide essential services to people who need them, especially if there is a new wave of homelessness stemming from this crisis.

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Sacred Heart Mission respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate our services. We pay our respects to the ongoing living cultures of Aboriginal peoples, and to Elders past, present and future.
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