‘It sucks’: homeless Victorians asked to help pay for lockdown hotels

Rough sleepers in NSW haven’t been asked to contribute to cost of emergency housing

A homeless man holds a cup as he begs in Melbourne
 Some homeless people in Melbourne are being asked to co-pay for their motel and hotel rooms. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Homeless people who were sleeping rough in Victoria have been asked to make “significant co-payments” for the hotels and motels they were placed in during the coronavirus pandemic, while those in New South Wales have not.

After Covid-19 was declared a pandemic the Victorian government announced it would double crisis funding to help homelessness agencies to find temporary housing for those sleeping on the streets of Melbourne, some $6m in total.

The Council for Homeless Persons, Victoria’s peak body for homelessness care providers, confirmed that some rough sleepers were being asked to co-pay for their rooms, with some paying up to half of the cost of the accommodation,potentially several hundred dollars a week.

Some of those who have been placed in motels and hotels said this system felt unfair, given the huge number of returned travellers whose hotel accommodation is being paid for in full by the Victorian government.

“Am I allowed to say it sucks?” said Adam Bollingmore, who was sleeping rough in Melbourne before being placed in a motel by service provider Launch Housing.

“I’m extremely grateful to have a roof over my head … But I watched two busloads of people arrive at hotels in the city. On the news, some of them were complaining of the five-star hotel, that there was nothing to do and they couldn’t go anywhere. Yet we are staying at motels and paying for it and we are grateful.

“They have enough money to travel.”

Bollingmoore is paying $150 a week out of his jobseeker benefits.

Given the additional Covid-19 supplement, this payment is about 26% of his income. This percentage is comparable to contributions usually paid by those in social housing apartments and homes but he only has access to a single room at the 2.5-star motel.

It’s understood he is paying less than a number of others.

A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services said since 29 March, 12,460 people arriving from overseas had been placed in hotel quarantine.

It is understood some 4,500 homeless Victorians have been placed in motels and hotels for a period of about three months.

Jenny Smith, the chief executive of the Council for Homeless Persons, defended the co-payment system, saying it was normal for housing providers to ask for a contribution.

“It wasn’t a directive from the government that we have to ask for co-payments, they weren’t putting caveats on it. They told us to do more of what we usually do and we did.”

“If they have no resources then we will pay. It’s an individualised response for each person. You have to make that funding last,” she said.

The NSW government handed homelessness organisations $14m to help get rough sleepers off the street once the lockdown was introduced.

But Katherine McKernan, the Homelessness NSW chief executive, confirmed that the 2,200 people who had been placed in hotels and motels throughout the state had not been asked for money.

“No, they haven’t had to pay at all, which is good,” she said. “They’ve been able to save money.”

A spokesman for the Victorian department of health and human services said co-payments were standard practice.

“The Victorian Government has invested nearly $15m to protect people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic, including almost $6m for hotel accommodation and private rental assistance to provide safe accommodation,” he said in a statement.

Others in the homeless service providers sector have criticised the Victorian rollout of temporary hotel housing.

“They are asking for co-contributions but these people on benefits, there is not much they can give, especially when their common sources of food are gone,” said Melanie Raymond, Chair of Youth Projects. “The food vans are not operating in the CBD shutdown.”

She also questioned the fairness of co-payments in the context of ongoing state-funded quarantining. She said she was grateful for the emergency funding but now it was time to consider the adequacy of the response.

“Some of the hotel rooms had removed the coffee, sugar and tea, so our clients couldn’t even make a cup of tea in their room,” she said.

Youth Project provides food and medical and social support to rough sleepers in the city centre and the city’s west. It also helped connect people to housing providers organising hotel stays.

“What we didn’t know is when the homeless were offered accommodation in hotels and motels, that it didn’t come, necessarily, with food, cooking facilities or laundry facilities … The ‘stay in place’ order was difficult for people who were housed with only what they stood in,” Raymond said.

Raymond said Youth Projects had to scale up its food relief services while many of its usual donation sources dried up.

“We didn’t realise how much food we would have to provide,” she said. “Basically breakfast, lunch and something to take back to your room for dinner for anyone who’d come down for an appointment.”

A department spokesman said government-funded food support had been accommodating of stay-at-home orders and had provided meals to people in hotels and motels.

Bollingmore said his living costs had gone up since the lockdown began.

“You are just paying for the room, you know, you can’t go buy bulk groceries because you have nothing to cook on,” he said. “You end up wasting a lot of money on food. I’m still grateful, but all I have is a microwave.”

“If you aren’t careful you can easily have to spend $60 on food for a day for three meals.”

He has been able to access food relief programs and is trying to save as much money as possible in preparation for the jobseeker payment’s return to pre-Covid levels.

A spokeswoman for Launch Housing, Bollingmore’s provider, said they ask people to contribute to accommodation “when it’s reasonable to do so”.

“We aim to help people and the community stay safe and to practice social distancing. Arrangements for supporting people into emergency accommodation are subject to constant review,” she said.

Smith said the Council for Homeless Persons was hopeful that the Victorian government would allow temporary hotel accommodation to continue until more permanent solutions could be found.

“In other parts of the country, I’m not sure that our sector is optimistic that there will be a response, other than to kick people back into homelessness, but we’re still waiting on the Victorian government’s response,” she said. “We have no reason not to be hopeful.”

The council was advocating for the creation of additional housing to be used to stimulate the state’s economy as the shutdown ended, she said.

“We have asked for 6,000 homes a year for 10 years to bring us up to the country’s average,” she said.


This article first appeared in The Guardian

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