Learning from emergency measures

3 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Archive, Homelessness,

When the pandemic hit this time last year, it set in motion a response to homelessness that would normally have been considered impossible.

At the start of the COVID crisis in early 2020, homelessness policy responses to the pandemic concentrated primarily on the fringes of Australia’s urban street population. From late March, four state governments — NSW, Queensland, South Australia, and Victoria — activated programs to rapidly move as many people as possible into safe temporary accommodation. For the most part this involved large-scale hotel bookings. The governments concerned authorised substantial funding to meet associated costs, including hotel charges, meals, and floating support for hotel-housed residents provided by contracted NGOs.

However, it soon became apparent that Australia had no coordinated strategy whatsoever regarding homelessness and COVID nationally. As highlighted by a new report for the ACOSS-UNSW Poverty and Inequality Partnership, research shows that a number of homelessness responses were spearheaded by advocacy groups and only later folded into official policy directions.

This proactive approach paralleled developments elsewhere in the world where frontline workers enacted innovative new ways of working to cope with the perils of the pandemic. Governments have also since been criticised for the speed of the official Australian response on homelessness, which was relatively slow (reflecting its low prioritisation compared with support for the unemployed and businesses affected by the pandemic).

Australia’s homelessness response also emphasised the significance of the way that social problems are framed. During COVID-19 in Australia, say the report’s authors, the representation of homelessness departed from “the prevailing neoliberal/individualising framework that has dominated homelessness policy in recent decades”. Rather than characterising homelessness by placing an emphasis on illness and disability, or misbehaviour and irresponsible choices, homelessness was suddenly reframed as a threat to public health of the broader population.

This reframing of homeless people as vectors for community disease saw the launch of emergency policy innovations on homelessness of scale and significance that few could have imagined possible. Without a doubt, Australia’s emergency measures played a part in preventing the spread of disease among the street homeless population and forestalling, or even preventing, the new homelessness surge that would otherwise have been expected to result from the pandemic-triggered economic downturn. “During the pandemic,” says Australian Council of Social Service CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie, “governments did the right thing by providing emergency housing to prevent a sudden surge in homelessness.”

Indeed, the emergency accommodation programs rolled out last year have been widely seen as a successful public health emergency operation, and the collaboration between state governments and specialist homelessness services have been described as “a stand-out example of coordination”.

There is much to learn from this experience: about how such crisis policy innovation might be better handled in a future disaster scenario; about how the latter stages of the present crisis may play out for people at particular risk of homelessness; and about the dispositions and capacities of the institutions and actors comprising Australia’s homelessness systems. “It is only through an in-depth understanding both of the pandemic emergency measures and of their institutional contexts that we can assess the prospects for building back better after the crisis has subsided,” conclude the authors.

One thing is certain. With rough sleeping almost eliminated in several Australian cities in mid-2020, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that effective action reaps results. Who knows? COVID-19 may be seen as a focusing event in shaping homelessness policy in the future. The 2020 public health crisis may prove to signal the beginning of a new national approach to homelessness. “Governments, particularly the federal government, have the power to prevent this worsening homelessness crisis,” says Goldie, “and to build on the good work during the pandemic and finally get us on track to end homelessness in Australia.”

Source: UNSW Sydney/ACOSS: COVID-19: rental housing and homelessness impacts — an initial analysis

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