Matthew has slept rough on-and-off for 22 years but this week he stuffed all his possessions into a bag and prepared to make the walk to his new temporary home — a luxury hotel in Central Sydney.
- The NSW Government is funding hotel rooms for some people facing homelessness, where they can properly follow social distancing rules
- 116,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Australia at the last census
- The Haymarket Foundation hopes the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to systematically change our approach to homelessness
Thousands of people like Matthew who are experiencing homelessness across NSW are being moved into three, four and five-star hotels under a State Government scheme to enable them to socially distance properly.
But the hotel offer is currently only for 30 days.
Homeless services want the government to extend that period and hope this pandemic will set a precedent for it to provide more permanent housing for rough sleepers.
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Matthew, who has been told by doctors he has a compromised immune system and is at high-risk during the pandemic, said he wanted to be able to isolate in the hotel but was also worried he wouldn’t be able to talk to his friends.
“I do want to be alone but also, I know I don’t want to be alone,” he said.
Matthew had been living at a shelter for the homeless run by the Haymarket Foundation for the past month and before he left, he swapped numbers with mates who had to stay behind.
Background Briefing followed Matthew and 14 other people as they made the move this week, from the shelter to an entire floor of the Central Sydney Mercure.
Opportunity for a revolution
Social distancing on the streets or in shelters is nearly impossible during the pandemic.
At the time of the last census in 2016 there were 116,000 people who were homeless in Australia, an increase of 15 per cent since 2011.
The situation in NSW was even worse, with a near 40 per-cent jump in homelessness over the same time period.
Last month, the NSW government announced that rough sleepers, as well as clients from services like the Haymarket Centre, will be given the option to stay in hotels for 30 days or more.
Grace Rullis, manager of homelessness services for the foundation, hopes the scheme can be the beginning of a revolution for how society deals with homelessness.
“This is the nicest thing that’s come from this whole pandemic — that equalisation, of everyone deserves the same,” she said.
“Can there be permanent changes to actually end homelessness?”
Her team has worked to find an appropriate hotel for clients of the foundation and make sure it can provide for the unique needs of guests.
“Someone, for instance, wants a door open and that comes from a history of rough sleeping and being in the open,” she said.
“He wants to hear the hustle and bustle.
“We absolutely should adapt to that — we’re getting him a doorstop.”
She said while the hotel stay is an exciting opportunity, sudden changes and new living arrangements won’t be easy for many, especially those with complex mental health issues or chronic illness.
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Since COVID-19 restrictions began, NSW Department of Communities and Justice officers have upped their patrols at hotspots for rough sleepers across NSW to offer accommodation in hotel rooms.
So far, 741 have already agreed, but about 8200 Australians sleep rough every night and they can be difficult for authorities to reach.
Background Briefing followed Jacob Connor, an officer with the department, during a recent patrol at a Sydney Inner West park.
“We’ve got an extra 300 rooms that have become available,” he told Ravi, a man who’s been sleeping on a park bench for around three years.
“They are four and five-star hotels, so you know it’s going to be a lot more comfortable than other accommodation you may have stayed in — is that something that may interest you?”
Mr Connor’s offer was rebuffed by Ravi, who was sceptical.
“This right here is my five-star hotel,” he said.
He also expressed concerns about what happens at the end of the 30-day offer.
“Thirty days of accommodation isn’t going to help me in terms of coming back and sleeping in the rain,” he said.
Another man officers spoke to in Belmore Park hadn’t heard about COVID-19 or the social distancing measures.
But on this particular patrol, senior officer Daniel Cray was able to place several rough sleepers into hotels immediately.
“The message is getting across, mostly,” Mr Cray said.
“But there’s definitely a lag for the people that are hard to reach and isolated.”
Officers insist the 30-day offer is just the start and that finding permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness is the goal.
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What happens after 30 days?
Even before COVID-19, homelessness services in NSW were under severe strain.
Figures released late last year show that crisis services had to turn away more than half of the people who asked for help getting a roof over their head.
And government figures show there are currently 50,000 people on a five-to-10 year waitlist for social housing.
NSW Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services, Gareth Ward, said he knows the state faces a challenge to find long term accommodation for people after the 30-days of accommodation comes to an end.
“I’d like to be able to give a guarantee for every person [to have access to accommodation after 30 days],” he said.
“Obviously, this is an enormous challenge.”
The question is whether there’s enough stock to house the thousands of homeless people.
“We need more social, more affordable housing and we’ve acknowledged that and that’s why we’re building it,” Mr Ward said.
The state’s Social Affordable Housing Fund aims to make 3,400 dwellings available, and according to the minister, it is 60 per cent complete.
“But when you talk about the immediacy of the response, there are other products that are available to get people housing,” he said.
Mr Ward said the government has extended rent subsidy schemes around NSW.
He said there was no doubt COVID-19 had highlighted the importance of delivering solutions for people facing homelessness.
Homeless services organisations hope this awareness continues once the pandemic is over.
Life inside the hotel
Matthew and the other residents of the Haymarket Centre made their way through near-abandoned Sydney streets to their new hotel earlier this week.
Some had their belongings driven over by staff, others walked, carrying with them makeshift plastic bags, doonas over shoulders and colourful suitcases on wheels.
When they arrived, they were greeted by a concierge, who offered to take their bags and bring them up to their rooms.
Matthew wanted to bring his own bedsheets because he didn’t want to cause a fuss.
“I do my own bed and do my own things myself,” he said.
“Since I was on the streets I’m always keeping everything tidy, so I didn’t have any complaints.”
After being welcomed by the hotel manager and checking in, Matthew headed up to his room.
Accompanied by a clerk, he entered his new room for the first time.
“I’m shocked,” he said.
“Usually, housing might put you in a ‘temporary accommodation’ and it’s probably like a one-star, where it just looks like a dump.
“This is actually better than the ones I’ve been in. Nice standards.”
Once all the guests settled, Ms Rullis and the caseworkers checked in on them. They reminded the guests that despite the isolation in the hotel rooms, they could still access the Centre’s support services 24/7.
“The people we work with don’t surprise me, because they’re beautifully resilient,” she said.
“But I love when they get excited and we can give them hope again.”
The really exciting part, she said, was that this could lead to systematic change for people experiencing homelessness.
“I haven’t been more excited in a long time.”