Homelessness – Compounded by fires and Covid

‘Sleeping rough’ under bridges or on park benches can sometimes seem like the only option for men in Tumut.

In a post-bushfires Snowy Valleys, affordable housing is even more difficult to find than ever, with displaced families needing homes alongside victims of domestic violence and relationship breakdowns and those suffering from physical or mental health issues. Local homelessness advocates say that the economic impact of Covid-19 will put extra pressure on families and on the limited housing opportunities.

Patricia Mangelsdorf is President of the St Vincent de Paul Tumut Conference.  St Vincent’s often takes referrals from Centrelink, since there is no dedicated housing in Tumut for homeless men. They generally get referred on to Edel Quinn in Wagga. 

“The homelessness of men in this town is incredible,” she said. “Honestly, the community as a whole doesn’t recognize that there’s a need.”

Ms Mangelsdorf said there are three or four men in town who have been homeless for an extended period of time, and don’t have a clear path into affordable housing. Family, health or financial issues keep them in the town, but out of a home. 

“They’re sleeping rough in parks under trees in concealed areas where they know that no one knows that they’re there,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide short term accommodation but it’s getting to the point, we just can’t afford to keep on doing that. 

“There’s got to be something that happens.”

She’d like to see some type of short-term accommodation for men in Tumut, rather than seeing them living under bridges or down by the river. 

“There’s a stigma attached,” she said, adding that it can be difficult for some individuals to be able to move on from mistakes in their past, since a bad reputation develops quickly in a close-knit community and can last a long time.

“If you’re a particular person, there’s no change [possible],” she said.

“That’s the good part about St Vincent de Paul Conference members. They are nonjudgmental. You don’t judge people and tell them what they should be doing. 

“We try to enable them and we give them support that is reasonable.”

Ms Mangelsdorf has lived in a number of towns across Australia and said she feels that the community in Tumut is “quite segmented”.

“I think some people have blinkers on,” she said. “We don’t want to recognize there are problems, because then we’d have to do something about it.

“There’s a big discrepancy between the rich and the poor. To put it better, between those who grew up here and live within a certain culture and those coming in.”

While there isn’t currently a shelter for homeless men in Tumut, there is some temporary accommodation for women who are homeless. 

Karen Tobin, Manager of the Specialist Homelessness Service for Tumut Regional Family, said she feels that the community wants to help, but often doesn’t learn that there is a problem until they are personally affected.

“Prior to being employed by Tumut Regional Family Services Inc. (TRFS) I was not aware of the issues local people faced being at risk and homeless in Tumut,” she said.

“The local community is extremely generous, and we often receive calls from people wanting to help by making donations.

“I think the community is aware, but possibly not to the full extent, as it is a hidden problem.”

She estimates that Tumut Region Family Services sees 25 clients a month who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. 

There was a surge of support for homeless people during the bushfires, but Ms Tobin said “we have the same homeless people before the fires and after,” and agreed that there is a lack of affordable housing in the Snowy Valleys, which has been made worse since the fires came through.

“It’s obvious there’s too many people and not enough houses,” she said. “There’s not enough affordable housing.”

Ms Tobin said TRFS works to maintain positive relationships with local real estate agents and housing authorities, but the competition for affordable housing is fierce. 

For a single person on the maximum regular (pre-Covid) Centrelink benefits, their income is between $500-$600 a fortnight. It is recommended that not more than 30% of a person’s or family’s income be spent on rent to allow for budgeting for other costs to live.That means a single person receiving Centrelink benefits can afford to pay around $165 a week in rent. 

The increased payments which came as a government response to Covid-19 has boosted that figure, making it slightly easier for single people earning benefits to find a home, but with families displaced by fires also in rental units and prices going up to meet demand, it’s as tough as ever.

Many people instead try “couch surfing”, sleeping on the couches of friends and family, which leads to overcrowding. This does not allow for people to observe distancing restrictions in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

She predicts that the next wave of homeless families will be those who had good jobs before the Covid-19 pandemic and bushfires, but suddenly went from being a two-income family to a partial-income family and no way to keep up on their bills. 

“I think the next few months may get really tough,” she said. 

She said there will likely be many families who have lost income, but perhaps not enough to qualify for the full range of government stimulus benefits which have come out in the wake of Covid-19.

“They might be slipping through the gaps with any extra payments, because they’ve still been able to hold onto a job,” she said. 

Also related to the pandemic, organisations like TRFS were warned to watch for an increase in domestic violence linked with the extended periods of time which families are now spending at home in isolation. 

“Domestic Violence has increased a little bit, but not a huge amount we were told to expect,” she said. 

Ms Tobin said TRFS had organised for additional temporary accommodation to be available for domestic violence victims, especially over Easter, working local motels (which are currently mostly empty) to have rooms on standby, but they weren’t needed.

For women, it’s slightly better than for men, who have to relocate to Wagga for crisis accommodation, but not by much. Ms Tobin said they’re always at capacity with the accommodation they have, which can house three families and one individual woman or a woman with a disability.

“We’re lucky really, there’s a lot of small towns that don’t have a refuge available,” she said. “With ours, we almost don’t operate like a crisis accommodation, because people are in there longer-term. Being in a smaller, rural area housing people is slower than compared to larger cities with more housing options.”

She said the refuge suffers from a bottleneck in trying to get women into permanent housing.

“If there aren’t suitable properties, you just come to dead ends.”

For anyone facing homelessness, Ms Tobin recommended seeking the help of services like TRFS, St Vincent de Paul, Edel Quinn Homeless Service and Mission Australia. There is also a homelessness hotline, ‘Link2Home’, that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1300 652 488.