For the majority of the population, the COVID-19 lockdown is a major inconvenience, but one that can be tolerated knowing it’s for the greater good.
Measures such as social distancing and increased hand washing are now the new norm, but for those that are homeless, the horrors of the coronavirus outbreak have hit hard.
According to Pam Barker, the CEO of Yfoundations, which is the peak body for youth homelessness in NSW, there’s already been an increase in the numbers of those sleeping rough.
“Young people generally couch surf, or live in overcrowded dwellings. Some sleep on trains, the transport system is very popular,” Ms Barker told Nine.com.au.
“They’ll sleep during the day in public spaces, areas like libraries or parks, and then stay up all night.
“With this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s making the young homeless more visible.
“We’re seeing the number of street-sleepers rising at the moment, and it’s only week two or three.
“We know that with the increase in unemployment and the issues across our casual workforce that those numbers will surge in coming weeks.”
With the huge rise in the number of people working from home comes a hidden problem. It’s actually forced young people onto the street, often after they’ve just lost whatever casual work they may have had.
“Those that are couch surfing are usually just holding on by a thread, usually you might have some casual work at a bar or McDonalds,” Ms Barker said.
“Often people are really generous in those circumstances, if they’re at work during the day they’ll often let someone who works at night crash on the couch while they’re gone. But with everyone at home right now, you’re not going to want that young person, who’s now unemployed, sleeping on your couch.
“It’s pushing the young people out onto the streets, we have young people (defined as those under 25) making up a quarter of the homeless population, that’s about 18,000 young people on the streets.
“Even the lack of foot traffic means the ability to beg for money is gone. That’s causing huge issues for young people at night.
“It’s a very serious problem.”
The exact numbers of homeless with COVID-19 will probably never be known, simply because most will never be tested.
Ms Barker admits she’s been lucky, with those she’s dealt with typically only displaying mild symptoms.
“We have very good support from St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney,” she said.
“But a lot of the health issues that the homeless have are respiratory, and we find they’re at a higher risk not just of getting COVID-19, but getting very ill.
“I know we’re trying to isolate but we need to know who’s out there on the streets, and their current health status. If it declines we need to check up on them often so we can move them somewhere where they can get the treatment they need.
“But we need to do all we can to prevent them getting the virus in the first place, obviously that’s the best outcome.”
According to Ms Barker, the coming months will be especially tough as Australia moves into winter. And despite plenty of hotel rooms lying vacant at the moment, they’re not always suitable for a homeless person, especially the young.
“The biggest issue is those under 18 can’t be placed into temporary accommodation on their own, they need to have 24/7 care,” she said.
“If a young person is 16 or 17 and they’ve been through some traumatic stuff, you don’t want to be putting them in a hotel room on their own.
“The mental health of the homeless is usually quite poor, putting them in isolation in a hotel room for a few months isn’t going to have a great outcome.”
Recent days have seen police cracking down on those flouting social distancing laws, with fines issues and people told to move on.
For Ms Barker, the concern is the homeless will be unfairly targeted.
“When people are pushed out onto the streets and maybe sleeping rough, or maybe residing in an overcrowded dwelling and trying to make do, we’re worried the police will fine them.
“If you’re a young person who’s lost their job and has nowhere to live, how will they pay the fine when they have no job or no home?
“In the current climate, young people are already a target, and the criminalisation of the homeless is already quite common.
“It’s horrific, it’s an awful age group to be homeless.”
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