Tweed Daily News investigates the issues affecting the rough sleeping community during the coronavirus.
Tweed Daily News investigates the issues affecting the rough sleeping community during the coronavirus.

What happens to the most vulnerable during a pandemic

ORGANISATIONS are reporting an increased demand for services during the coronavirus from those affected by homelessness and a decrease in resources.

This problem has created what some are referring to as a "perfect storm" for rough sleepers in the pandemic.

For a full look at the situation, Newscorp has interviewed some key players on the border of Northern NSW and Queensland - an area notorious for having a high homeless population.

Figures in 2018 revealed at least 308 people were homeless on the Tweed Shire at any one time - 7.2 per cent higher than the state average.

Tweed-base charity You Have A Friend founder John Lee.
Tweed-base charity You Have A Friend founder John Lee.

A TOUGH HOLE TO GET OUT OF

Tweed non-profit You have a Friend founder John Lee raised concerns about those suffering from homelessness in the area after his non-profit has had to cease operation while he self-isolates.

Working with rough sleepers in the region for about 12 years, Mr Lee said those he knew sleeping in a local park had no way to self-isolate.

"If one of them gets the virus or the flu, they are all sleeping together because they have to, they have no where to go," he said.

Mr Lee said he understood YHAF could no longer accept donations or operate the group meals they usually provided due to restrictions but explained if there were less people checking on the community's most vulnerable then sickness could go unnoticed and spread.

"People have said 'why don't the bums get a job' … well if you don't have a home then you won't get a job and if you don't have a job its hard to get a home," he said.

"When you get into the sad situation where you have nothing it is very difficult to get out of.

"What do they do? People mustn't say now they are going to get the boost from the government.

"The fact is - it costs nearly $1500 to get into a unit and these guys don't have that money … there are also 20 other people ahead of them applying for that unit."

Member for Tweed Geoff Provest talks to Alysia Jane from Fred's Place about the recent government proposal to help the homeless.
Member for Tweed Geoff Provest talks to Alysia Jane from Fred's Place about the recent government proposal to help the homeless. Scott Davis

OPTIONS TO PAVE A WAY FORWARD

State Member for Tweed Geoff Provest said feedback from the 'assertive outreach' officers in the area told of a lot of fear surrounding the pandemic.

Mr Provest explained the assertive outreach program has operated in the area for about 18 months as one of 10 trials in NSW and aims to assist people to find accommodation, as well as with mental health and addiction issues and "provide them with a way forward".

"The team go out at night and early in the morning … they will access them and workout what social security they can claim and then work with the other agencies to find them temporary accommodation.

"Some of the other organisations who have been affected because the social distancing laws have made it pretty hard, you can't pull up in the park and feed 20-30 people at the moment."

Mr Provest said he was not aware of any positive coronavirus cases in Tweed's homeless population.

"We are going to have a telephone conference (this) week with our police force and some of the other agencies so we know we are going to be on the same page to look after these people," he said.

Mr Provest said his office had been contacted by those seeking help with domestic violence situations as well as financial stress from losing their jobs during the pandemic's lockdown.

He advised people to ring his office if they needed help or knew someone suffering from homelessness on 07 5523 4816.

 

Theresa Mitchell with her staff outside the Agape Hub premises in Tweed Heads. (Photo: SCOTT POWICK).
Theresa Mitchell with her staff outside the Agape Hub premises in Tweed Heads. (Photo: SCOTT POWICK).

INCREASE IN THOSE SLEEPING IN CARS

Agape Outreach founder Theresa Mitchell claimed she was noticing a lot more rough sleepers in the area, particularly those forced to live in their cars since the coronavirus restrictions.

"I've been out every three days driving around in the van handing out food," she said.

"I'm spending a lot of time talking people down from panic attacks."

However, Ms Mitchell she said none of those she spoke to had been approached by the assertive outreach team or been offered options for temporary accommodation.

 

Agape Outreach Inc has used Goodwin Park in Coolangatta for more than a decade. Picture: Facebook
Agape Outreach Inc has used Goodwin Park in Coolangatta for more than a decade. Picture: Facebook

She confirmed this week she would be taking Mr Provest up on his offer as she already had 20 who needed temporary accommodation.

After a period of shutting down, Agape Outreach has opened back up again from Monday.

The non profit is currently looking for large private car parks, particularly in the southern Gold Coast, where they can provide meals while everyone has enough space to social distance themselves appropriately.

Ms Mitchell said there had been a decline in volunteers and appealed for more to contact her.

Alysia Hopkins helps homeless people every day as the service manager of Fred's Place in Tweed Heads.
Alysia Hopkins helps homeless people every day as the service manager of Fred's Place in Tweed Heads. Nikki Todd

FRED'S PLACE STILL A SANCUTARY

A spokesman from St Vincent de Paul, who run Fred's Place, in Tweed Heads said the centre was still operating by handing food out in the car park to adhere to social distancing.

"We can still provide showers and laundry however we need to disinfect the shower after each use to ensure it is safe for everyone. Obviously this puts significant strain on our staff," he said.

The spokesman continued that Fred's Place was also seeing faces they didn't recognise.

"This could be because there are more people here from out of area or more people sleeping rough as a result of the coronavirus," he said.

Funding for Fred's Place primarily comes from St Vincent de Paul op shops which are still accepting donations in their charity bins at the front of the stores.

Picture taken before first Tweed Shire Council meeting for the year begins.
Picture taken before first Tweed Shire Council meeting for the year begins. Jessica Lamb

WHAT COUNCIL IS DOING

Tweed Shire Council's Tracey Stinson said: "Our role is to support State Government agencies and the network of community organisations who provide services and support to people who are homeless in the Tweed.

She confirmed council was working with the Department of Communities and Justice "who has increased their outreach to rough sleepers to ensure people have up-to-date advice and information" as well as ensuring public showers and toilets remained open and increased cleaning at these facilities.

"If you are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, assistance is available through Link2Home on 1800 152 152."

 

Federal member for Richmond Justine Elliot.
Federal member for Richmond Justine Elliot.

HOW FEDERAL DECISIONS STOP HOMELESSNESS HAPPENING

Federal Member for Richmond Justine Elliot said the North Coast had "a massive housing affordability and homelessness crisis, and people receiving Centrelink benefits are the hardest hit".

"Families and individuals without secure full-time employment who rely on some sort of Centrelink allowance to survive are really doing it tough; they are struggling," she said.

Ms Elliot claimed her office had been inundated with requests for assistance and locals raising concerns about "the impact that this situation will have on our most vulnerable".

"As unemployment increases there's a real risk that people don't just lose their job, but also their home," she said.

"Housing is now on the frontline of Australian healthcare.

Murwillumbah Centrelink. Photo: Scott Powick
Murwillumbah Centrelink. Photo: Scott Powick Scott Powick

"More and more Australians are being told to stay at home. You can't stay at home if you don't have one. You can't stay at home if you've been evicted because you've lost your job and can't pay the rent."

Ms Elliot welcomed the National Cabinet's decision to freeze evictions for the next six months for tenants in financial distress as well as providing $200 million to support charities and other community organisations which provide emergency and food relief.

"It is important that people who can't pay their rent aren't evicted, which would force more people into cars, parks and homeless shelters.

"This would only make the health crisis worse."

"As winter approaches and the Centrelink lines get longer, the charities that help the homeless and most vulnerable are suffering the perfect storm.

"Panic buying has meant supermarkets have very little short dated stock to donate. Food Bank is running out of food. They have suffered a 27 per cent drop in food donations, at the same time there is a 50 per cent increase in demand."

"The volunteer pool for a lot of charities is largely older Australians - most vulnerable to the Coronavirus.

"Most of these are smaller community-based charities that fill local needs. That loss places greater strain on other remaining services as the demand for help grows and grows."



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