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The human face of homelessness

The human face of homelessness

The human face of homelessness

3 August 2020

Street teams from Sydney’s Sydney Congress Hall Corps provide meals and other essentials to rough sleepers.

By Simone Worthing

Philip* is 75. He has a level of dementia, lived on his own and was experiencing some health and social issues. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, he was facing eviction – until The Salvation Army intervened. “We knew living on the street would have a bad outcome for him,” says Mark Dixon, The Salvation Army’s Program Manager for Homelessness Services in Gippsland, Eastern Victoria.

The Salvos work to transition rough sleepers into housing. (Stock image)

“We referred him into a residential support service, where he will have a better quality of life and his family can be part of his care. We’ll also organise for him to be assessed for a specialised residential service that provides housing and care to the elderly at risk of homelessness due to their addictions.”

Jeff* is a rough sleeper who has an acquired brain injury. He is well known in the local region and was seen as having few options. Jeff was high functioning and now, due to his injuries, has complex needs. He is unable to commit to good decisions or follow through on arrangements aimed at getting him off the street.

“Jeff is a lovely gentleman with a wicked sense of humour,” says Mark. “We see his potential and won’t give up on him. We are working with mental health services, the local council and police to make sure he won’t have to sleep in a tent through the winter.”

Alex* is a young man who has a mental health disorder. He lives in a caravan park and has limited problem-solving skills. “Local and regional services aren’t an option for him, but again, we see his potential and will take him on as a client,” says Mark. “With the right care and in the right circumstances, he has a good future and won’t end up as a rough sleeper.”

Mark and his hard-working team are based in Leongatha, 130km south-east of Melbourne. Their clients include people of all ages and genders, who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and who have high and complex needs which require creative and flexible service responses.

“Our focus is on social and spiritual support; on securing stable and permanent accommodation so people don’t have to come back needing a further crisis response,” Mark explains.

“We want to ‘turn off the tap’ to prevent harm and homelessness, which gives a much better result for everyone and also reduces the impact on our crisis resources and time so we are available to support others in need.

“We are doing preventative work, but largely at the moment we are reacting to daily crises based on a ‘triage’ system – looking at who is homeless today and not who will be homeless in a month’s time, and responding to that.

“Regardless of where our clients go, until we resolve the immediate crisis we stay in touch until they have a safe landing or a safe option for the night. Clients can always re-engage with us again as needed.” Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 10 clients would come into the service for assistance five days a week. Now, working under COVID-19 restrictions and according to government guidelines, limited face-to-face appointments occur. Most work is done by phone and/or electronically – finding crisis accommodation including motel stays, case management, providing rental assistance, managing client safety, and linking to other services.

As demands increase on all Salvation Army homelessness services, finances to cover crisis clients’ immediate needs are an ongoing challenge and a daily balancing act for Mark and his team.

“They are passionate and mission-focused,” says Mark of his team of 14 people (including eight case-workers), most of whom are part-time. “They advocate for those who are in the ‘too hard’ basket. Today is the day for change and we don’t give up! Yes, we advocate for change, but in the meantime, we walk the walk with the clients and are getting some great outcomes for them.”

The pandemic has led to increased demand for crisis accommodation. (Stock image)

Increased demand

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, homelessness services are seeing a huge increase in demand for crisis motel stays – more than 90 per cent in Gippsland. This is largely due to the loss of income, especially for casual workers, and families where one or both parents are no longer employed. This will most likely increase in the future as more businesses are unable to reopen.

As expanded government assistance packages end and accumulated expenses, such as rent relief, begin to impact, services are expecting the ‘next wave’ of homelessness to hit.

“We are encouraging people to talk to real estate agencies about arrears and renegotiating rental contracts, and proactively talking to government HEF [Housing Establishment Fund] support,” explains Mark. “We did get some additional HEF funding to assist, but it falls short of what we need, especially given the complexity of mental health issues with homeless rough sleepers and those directly impacted by COVID-19.

“The good thing for us in The Salvation Army is that, when there is a crisis of any kind, we are there. We can advocate on behalf of people and work to prevent them going back to bad situations, but we need the brokerage to ensure we don’t put pressure on clients or send them into debt.

“I came back to work with The Salvation Army to help be a voice for those who don’t have a voice and to advocate where the system is broken. It’s always about the client, about the mission, and not leaving anyone behind.”

* Names have been changed

Simone Worthing is the Assistant Editor of Salvos Magazine.

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