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Recapping the National Homelessness Conference (December 1st-2nd, 2020)

At the recent National Homelessness Conference presented by AHURI and Homelessness Australia, a range of national and international sector leaders gathered to share insights and experiences regarding homelessness. The overwhelming message was the impact of climate change and a global health crisis on our most vulnerable populations that encompasses both an ecological and human crisis given that the health of one is inextricably interwoven with the health of all.

According to Dr Rob Wiener (California Coalition for Rural Housing), between 2017 and 2018, California experienced the five largest fires in the state’s history, destroying an entire town and sending transient workers, low income renters and rough sleepers to their knees. Communities were exposed to the elements and climate migration shifted populations across state and country lines.

From late 2019 to early 2020 Australia experienced a bushfire season that was ferocious and caused devastation across the nation. It was on the back of this season that the country experienced the carnage of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year on from the bush fires, residents in the Bega Valley in New South Wales (NSW) are still in temporary accommodation. With state borders reopened the region is now filled until Easter 2021 with holiday bookings. Homelessness services are at a loss to keep up with the demands for accessible and affordable housing for those experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness (Daniel Strickland, Mission Australia, Goulburn NSW).

This movement of people following a natural disaster and the impact on their housing has been echoed here in Queensland along coastal tourist hot spots. When COVID-19 hit and the tourists and students left, housing services experienced increased access to hotels and university accommodation. Now we are hearing anecdotal evidence of mass holiday bookings, people buying up cheaper properties and taking up rentals as they make sea-changes in the wake of COVID-19, further squeezing marginalised populations out of the housing market.

During serious weather events rough sleepers are significantly impacted. Research undertaken in the summer of 2020 in Adelaide showed that 40% of rough sleepers lost safe sleeping spaces and all interviewed experienced high levels of dehydration (Danielle Every, Central Queensland University). During a time when many have been told to ‘shelter in place’, what happens when there is no home, or for those living with domestic and family violence, when home is not a safe space?

While the city replaced shelter beds with hotel rooms, those left out felt like the city was leaving them to die. The number of deaths tripled, not deaths from COVID but deaths of despair, overdoses, and isolation (Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco)

During COVID-19, access to food and supplies was impacted. As those in the general population started to panic buy, those on low incomes found themselves facing issues of food insecurity. With a lack of 24/7 services within some rural and remote communities, responding and managing to crisis is more complex (Katherine McKernan, Homelessness NSW).

There was a concerted effort to keep First Nation Peoples in remote communities protected from COVID-19. Had the pandemic hit their communities, given the overcrowding that is prevalent, they could have been devastated. Overcrowding needs to be addressed moving forward, new rooms need to be added to existing places and new larger new stock created (Dr Kyllie Cripps, Faculty of Law, University of NSW). Overcrowding impacts child protection and experiences of family and domestic violence. Furthermore, there is the broader impact of poor and substandard housing in rural and remote communities.

Community consultation will be critical if we are to overcome any of these issues, especially within the context of major events such as COVID-19 and natural disasters. Those living with poverty and experiencing housing instability do not have the systemic privilege or financial position to withstand the impact (Katherine McKernan CEO Homelessness NSW).

The pandemic has created conditions for real systemic change – suddenly the health of one is deeply linked to the health of all (Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco)

As measures are being undertaken to kick start the economy, tourism and ensure employment growth, communities already struggling to house their populations will face greater pressures with the movement of populations for work, leisure and migration. If we couple this with incremental decreases in welfare payments, there is a new twist to the COVID-19 and climate crises that housing and homelessness services are bracing for. With these conundrums come many opportunities for addressing the issues we are presented with. Through this pandemic we’ve all learned to be more flexible, collaborative and responsive. Most significantly we’ve recognised more than ever before the importance of listening to those most vulnerable.