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‘Stranded’: horror month for Australian homelessness services as Omicron ravages sector

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Stephanie Oatley recalls a day in late December when she needed to get a whole unit of young people experiencing homelessness tested for Covid. “We had a young person who started showing symptoms, and a second young person got an itchy throat,” says Oatley.

“In the van, they hopped. There was only one place open … They got there at 9 am, and waited for nine hours.”

Oatley is the chief executive of Platform Youth Services, which provides crisis accommodation to people as young as 12 in Sydney’s west, Blue Mountains, and Hawkesbury regions.

Like most sectors of the east coast economy, homelessness services have been ravaged by Omicron leaving them without enough staff, forcing them to reduce services and to lock down their crisis accommodation. Some have been scrambling to find – and then fork out thousands of dollars on – rapid tests.

But the Omicron response has been lacking. “The processes in place for the previous lockdown have not been able to be implemented due to the high number of cases and the overwhelmed health system,” she says, “and none of the arrangements for hotel accommodation provided to rough sleepers has been reinstated this time around.”

In Platform’s case, the situation has been particularly complex. Those staying in its crisis accommodation are aged between 12-17. As a result, Oatley says Covid-positive clients couldn’t move to a healthy hotel.

Due to severe staff shortages, some employees were essentially forced to move into the crisis units during outbreaks “just to get us through”.

“The big thing is staff shortages,” says Oatley. “We’d have one staff member that would come down with Covid and then nine staff would get Covid from that one case. The clients would have Covid. We’re a small service of 45 staff, we’ve had 16 key staff get Covid.”

“One of our houses has just been constant for three weeks,” she adds.

Guardian Australia this week reported the findings of a Productivity Commission report that found that pre-Omicron, nearly half of all people who seek help with homelessness in New South Wales were unable to get it.

McKernan says the “unprecedented number of cases in services” meant some services have been forced to “make really difficult decisions around reducing intake, reducing the number of clients in accommodation in order to enable clients to isolate”.

She notes it’s already “unfortunately already a hugely busy time for homelessness services”.

“Services feel that they have been stranded,” says Katherine McKernan, the chief executive of Homelessness NSW. She notes the government had acted quickly to provide hotel accommodation for the homeless during previous outbreaks.

In Melbourne, Launch Housing, which runs four crisis accommodation services across the city, has been forced to twice lock down its facilities due to an Omicron outbreak.

“What that effectively means is that every time we have a Covid outbreak on site we don’t take new referrals,” says Andrew Hollows, a general manager at Launch Housing.

In simple terms, an outbreak means for a short period some people who need crisis accommodation will not be able to receive it. These are, as McKernan says, “really difficult decisions”.

Hollows says in these lockdown periods, Launch has been able to assist clients in other ways. “Even if they couldn’t go to crisis accommodation, they would still go to other accommodation options, or help them with financial assistance,” he says. “It wasn’t like we weren’t providing any response.”

Peter Valpiani, chief executive of The Haymarket Foundation, which provides crisis accommodation and drug and alcohol services in Sydney, has done overnight shifts at its crisis accommodation as a result of the staff shortages. He says the Omicron crisis has flow-on effects for people the service assists.

“We had a gentleman that was a close contact because he lived in the same house as somebody who tested positive, and he had just gotten a job,” says Valpiani. “You can imagine someone who is putting their life together, just returned to employment, and as a close contact you can’t work.”

Valpiani says the man had tested positive via a rapid test and was therefore denied access to the Centrelink pandemic payment, which at the time required a PCR test result. “He was in this position where he needed the money in order to pay his rent, to not become homeless again,” he says, adding that Haymarket offered the man financial support.

Then there has been the RAT race. McKernan says Homelessness NSW and the sector had first requested access to and use of RATs as a way of supporting clients in August 2021.

The NSW government is now in the process of providing services with free access to rapid tests and has indicated it will reimburse them for past purchases. But the past month has been tough, even more so for clients.

Another challenge is that, for some people experiencing homelessness, seven days of isolation can bring back trauma. “You’ve got people with, say, an incarceration history, so as soon as you say ‘hey, you’re locked up and you can’t leave, that can cause a sort of emotional triggers with people,” says Valpiani.

“We have to do it in a really trauma-informed, sensitive way and look at ways in which we can provide bits of entertainment for people. Just to kind of get their mind off things, or to reduce anxiety.”

Importantly, all homelessness services Guardian Australia spoke to say that while they have battled outbreaks in crisis accommodation, no clients have become seriously ill or required hospitalisation.

But Oatley says several rounds of isolation due to cases in the services have been tough on the young people who rely on her organisation. “Young people don’t like being contained in a bedroom,” she says. “We were lucky we had access to … Netflix, Xboxes, and we got a big donation of really good art supplies.”

Oatley acknowledges that Omicron was always bound to cause havoc. But she insists the chaos that was wrought on homelessness services could have been avoided.

“I think the government was just really irresponsible when they opened everything back up without the resources,” says Oatley. “That’s the sort of stuff that I got a bit frustrated with. The government has made all these decisions but without the resources to implement them.”

Asked if, things have improved after a horror month, Oatley replies: “No, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“School’s coming back. Our staff is coming back to work. We’ve got RAT tests. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. So can our young people.”

1 Comments

  • Robyn

    Robyn

    5:00 AM, 21-02-2022

    This is so sad for the homeless community.

    0 Reply

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