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Homelessness and the pandemic – what is the government doing?

Eve Jeffery

A quick look at the Byron Council website will tell you that the average rent in the Shire is $590 or 49 per cent of the average household income of $1,218. The comparisons on the page show Sydney’s Woollahra $800 rent being 44 per cent of a $1,814 income and Brighton in Melbourne with rents averaging 42 per cent of the income at $650. Even Brisbane’s Eaton Hills gets a look in with a $510 rent being 39 per cent of a $1,312 income.

This is cold comfort if you happen to be a single parent whose only income is a Centrelink benefit. You’d definitely not be earning $12k a week, yet you’d be more than likely looking at $500 to $600 a week in rent – unless of course, you ended up homeless because you just couldn’t find something you could afford.

Volunteers services inundated with extra homeless

Our volunteer services such as the Liberation Larder and the Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre are currently groaning under the weight of extra homelessness since the start of the pandemic. People who didn’t expect to be here and out of work, are – and the growing number of our own homeless is now making the issue and epidemic in the Byron Shire.

We know what the volunteers are doing but what is the government doing?

The Greens have been working closely with the Department of Communities and Justice through the pandemic

Tamara Smith MP says that the Greens have been working closely with the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) through the pandemic with regard to support for rough sleepers and people on the homelessness spectrum in Byron and Ballina Shire’s.

Ms Smith says in the last few months her office has publicly advocated for the use of caravan parks to provide shelter for people rough sleeping, with the right support, they have had meetings with the Homelessness Coordinator and Deputy Mayor of Byron Shire Council in relation to this issue; they have discussed the provision of accommodation to rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic with The Buttery and specifically to assist their outreach program and supported individual constituents experiencing homelessness and advocated on their behalf with DCJ Housing Services for Northern NSW and the Team Leader of Access and Demand NNSW (Ballina Office).

Where there is a will there is a way

‘One thing that is a sure take away from government responses to Covid-19 in Australia is that where there is a will there is a way,’ said Ms Smith.

‘For over a decade we have been told that we can’t afford to lift the unemployment benefit rate or invest more money in frontline workers to house people rough sleeping or homeless, yet both of those things have happened in the last three months.’

Federal Member for Richmond Justine Elliot says there are more homeless Australians than ever before. ‘On the North Coast we have a massive housing affordability and homelessness crisis, and people receiving Centrelink benefits are the hardest hit.

Elliot inundated with requests for assistance

‘I have been inundated with requests for assistance and by many locals who have raised their concerns about the impact that this situation will have on our most vulnerable. The impact of Coronavirus threatens to make it even worse’

Ms Elliot says that as unemployment increases there’s a real risk that people don’t just lose their job, but also their home.’Housing is now on the frontline of Australian healthcare.’

‘Labor welcomed the National Cabinet’s decision to freeze evictions for the next six months for tenants in financial distress due to the impact of Coronavirus. We have consistently said that no one should lose their home, whether they own it or rent it, because of the virus. This will help.’

As winter approaches and the Centrelink lines get longer, the charities that help the homeless and most vulnerable are suffering the perfect storm

‘As winter approaches and the Centrelink lines get longer, the charities that help the homeless and most vulnerable are suffering the perfect storm. The volunteer pool for a lot of charities is largely older Australians – most vulnerable to the Coronavirus.

‘Most of these are smaller community-based charities that fill local needs. That loss places greater strain on other remaining services as the demand for help grows and grows.

‘That’s why this extra support and assistance for providers of food and emergency relief and other homelessness services is so important.

‘Both the State and Federal Governments must continue to provide support and assistance for those most vulnerable in our community.’

State Member for Lismore Janelle Saffin said she has been assured that the majority of people in their homeless community have been accommodated

This would appear to be different just south of Byron. State Member for Lismore Janelle Saffin said she had been assured that the majority of people in their homeless community have been accommodated. ‘Many are in hotels and motels. It is wonderful for people to have a roof over their heads as being isolated in lockdown brings many challenges,’ said Ms Saffin. ‘I worry about accessing services that people need during these times such as GPs and health-related ones, that can be hard to access for people who are homeless at the best of times.

‘The NSW Treasury has published a document titled Supporting NSW, and in the Communities and Families section, it specifies three key areas of funding under the heading, A Roof Over Heads.

‘I have written to NSW Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services Gareth Ward and asked him if he could provide a breakdown of this, at least for my Lismore Electorate.’

People have a right to housing

Back at the Byron ranch, Council’s Homelessness Policy recognises that all people have a right to: housing that meets their individual needs and to enjoy public open spaces for activities that do not create an adverse impact on the rights of other users in the community.

This followed by the statement: ‘The Byron Shire has very limited housing options. There is no emergency or temporary accommodation and very little social housing. Areas in the Shire are among the least affordable in Australia. Byron Bay is the least affordable area on Australia’s east coast.’

Could it be as simple as affordable housing is the answer?

What is the street count now?

The annual street count of August 2019 found that 171 people are sleeping rough in three hot spots in our Shire. This is an 18 per cent increase from 145 people in August 2018 in the same areas. One could only assume if they did a street count tonight, there would be far more than that – and winter is coming.

We need to lean forward with a permanent liveable weekly rate of unemployment benefits

Tamara Smith says we cannot afford to snap back to business as usual when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable in our community after the pandemic. ‘We need to lean forward with a permanent liveable weekly rate of unemployment benefits as we brace for 20 per cent plus unemployment rates in regional areas.

‘We need to invest in programs that take housing options to people living on the streets and in affordable housing stock in homelessness hot spots like the Northern Rivers.’

Ms Smith says the genie is out of the bottle. ‘When governments choose to support and protect those who are most vulnerable in society they are supported and protected. Go figure’.

To see Council’s information about the homeless, visit: https://www.byron.nsw.gov.au/Community/Supporting-communities/Homelessness-in-the-Byron-Shire.


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6 responses to “Homelessness and the pandemic – what is the government doing?”

  1. Tarzan says:

    Of course rents have to be high and up near 50 percent of household income or it is then not worth having Air B’nb to be able to make a quid.

  2. To be honest, I am confused at what Council is trying to tell us when they show these figures on their website?
    Is it a warning or an invitation?
    Are they trying to turn the poor people off?
    ‘This neighbourhood is too rich for you, so don’t come ’round here’ ?
    Or is it an advertisement?
    ‘Hey, buy property here and make s4!tloads of money when you rent it out?
    I found it really odd

  3. I can’t unravel what Council’s touting either. Feels more
    like a Real Estate push for higher stakes & a call to all
    Sydney & Melbourne investors. If so, it’s Not On.

  4. Barrow says:

    Great Article Eve !! Help out where i can
    Have paid for many loads of groceries
    Mostly for single parents and the old at the
    Checkouts in many areas !! For years .
    Apart from my kids born and my wedding
    It is the most satisfying feeling to help those in need , many have cried including the Checkout lady then i lost it !!! Embarrassing not a chance .!!
    Would like to adopt a child one day who is in need .
    40.000 kids at any one time are doing it tough
    Veterans, mums, dads . And we live in the lucky
    Country with welfare. Most countries dont have any welfare.. lets do more for the Venerable..🙏

  5. Ida Wilson says:

    What is the government doing? evicting people from their homes using police brute force and throwing them onto the street , on behalf of crooked banks who peddle unscrupulous, defective mortgage contracts, dishonour their contractual obligations, and ignore repeated pleas for answers and resolution.
    What else is the government doing? Putting up no camping signs and no parking between 1am and 6am signs.
    What else is the government doing?
    Attempting to make homelessness invisible by moving people on through threat of punishment.
    What else is government doing? talking dribble and diarrhoea.

  6. Maple Hunt says:

    Yes, inequity & housing unaffordability for many in the shire needs a strong policy.
    1/ Maybe all houses, incl those used for STHL [SHORT TERM HOLIDAY LETTING] can have a enforceable contract to limit short term rental days right down to lower numbers as being spoken about currently.
    2/ Also an additional % of the days rented is rented minimum 50% less to those in desperate need for a break, such as over worked respite workers, or ‘end of life’ carers etc…who would love a quick break on the coast.
    ‘St Vinnies’ [De Paul] have offered ”low cost breaks at a few houses around Aus for those in need. The St Vincent de Paul Society has a number of properties used as holiday accommodation for disadvantaged families and individuals.These properties provide a much-needed rest for families under enormous stress and who are unable to afford any sort of holiday”.

    The Shires [Byron itself ] approx 40-45% of houses used for STHL must be a record in Aus!!!
    3/ Any new dev in the region must dedicate at least 15% of sqm built form to affordable social housing, not just rental at $50 pw below current average high figures, which seems to have been the outcome to date!

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