The future of nearly 30 rough sleepers housed in a five-star Perth hotel remains uncertain, with the state government yet to make a decision on the next stage of the pilot program.
As the four-week trial period of the Hotels with Heart initiative comes to an end, Community Services Minister Simone McGurk has failed to confirm whether it will be scaled up.
Instead, Ms McGurk said the government was “monitoring the outcomes closely” and would use the “evidence gathered” to inform future decisions on the needs of rough sleepers.
In March, Ms McGurk announced 20 homeless people would be moved to the Pan Pacific Hotel in the CBD as part of the government-funded pilot program to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
If successful, the program would be scaled up to support people fleeing domestic violence and struggling with mental health issues, Ms McGurk said.
“The aim of the Pan Pacific pilot was to get ahead of the curve, and develop an evidence-based, therapeutic model that would protect the most vulnerable rough sleepers from community transmission of COVID-19,” she said.
As of this week, the government had accommodated 28 people through the initiative, with an additional dozen Aboriginal people securing accommodation in Woodman Point camp, near Fremantle, where they can access food and medical services.
An additional $59 million in government funding for struggling service providers had also been made available through the COVID-19 Relief Fund and a dedicated taskforce had been created.
But advocates and service providers have warned the measures are not enough to protect vulnerable West Australians, and the uncertainly surrounding the future of the program left homeless people behind as winter in the city loomed.
Homeless advocate Jesse Noakes said the WA government’s efforts paled in comparison to those of other states, where hundreds of homeless people had been housed in a matter of weeks.
Since the start of the pandemic, the NSW government has funnelled $34 million towards temporary accommodation and rental assistance.
In Victoria, the government has poured nearly $9 million dollars into four repurposed aged care facilities to house and provide health services for more than 200 homeless people. It has also allocated an additional $6 million for service providers to move rough sleepers into hotels.
Queensland has committed $24.7 million towards its response effort and South Australia vowed to accommodate rough sleepers in motels.
“At the height of the pandemic the government accommodated 40 people at two sites in Perth, both of which have since closed,” Mr Noakes said.
“That left 800 others stranded outside on our empty streets, where they remain. What will happen to these people as the weather turns cold and wet?
“WA was way behind the curve on this one, and we were fortunate not to be flattened by it.”
Mr Noakes said the number of active COVID-19 cases had reduced significantly but WA still faced a critical shortage of crisis accommodation and affordable housing.
With more than 14,000 people waiting for social housings, Mr Noakes said any relief measures such as the Hotels with Heart initiative needed to be paired with longer-term housing solutions.
When asked whether additional accommodation for rough sleepers would be provided, Ms McGurk said the Department of Communities had established a dedicated homelessness taskforce to implement “plans and strategies for servicing the needs of rough sleepers” during the pandemic.
“Thanks to the diligent efforts of Western Australians, we have significantly minimised the spread of the virus – such that community transmission is not widespread,” she said.
“However, some cohorts in our community are still vulnerable, and we will not be complacent about those risks.”
This article first appeared in www.watoday.com.au