Australians are currently facing unprecedented shifts to their daily lives as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the country. Social distancing, working from home and the cancellation of large-scale events are all becoming a regular part of daily life.
But there’s one high-risk group of people who need urgent help during these incredibly challenging times – our homeless youth, writes Pam Barker.
We’re already seeing an impact on this vulnerable community, including Rev. Bill Cryouews’ difficult decision to close his iconic Loaves & Fishes Free Restaurant for the homeless due to COVID-19.
As Health Minister Greg Hunt announces measures for our ‘most vulnerable’, including the elderly and those with chronic conditions, where are the provisions for our homeless youth? A recent survey shows 18% of the youth services across NSW have already been impacted by COVID-19. The same is undoubtedly true around the country.
The growing need to self-isolate along with staff’s compromised health and capacity to cope means more young people are failing to receive much-needed support. Homeless youth are even more susceptible to the current COVID-19 pandemic thanks to their compromised immunity and not living within a nourishing family environment.
It’s critical that the government steps up to provide critical funding and supplies in order to support young people and keep homelessness services operating during these trying times. It is imperative that we ensure services stay open with adequate staffing in order to keep young people safe and off the streets. We also need access to basic supplies to facilitate good hygiene practices and to make sure young people are staying healthy.
The lack of guidance on safety planning and risk management around the unprecedented COVID-19 situation could spell a disastrous outcome in the near future. How do you encourage social distancing in overcrowded dwellings and shelters? Where can a homeless young person go to self-isolate? At this stage, we need clarity on what youth services can and can’t do around these evolving and deeply stressful circumstances.
Without an urgent response to address these issues, the number of homeless youth will escalate and overwhelm services even further. Are we prepared for the influx of homeless youth and the increase to our street sleep targets? Is there capacity for staff and volunteers to stay home as needed while keeping services operational? Are the youth services staffed accordingly and are they confident in their ability to manage a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a 24/7 service? The answer is a resounding no on all fronts.
We need funding provisions in place to support our youth and the organisations who are already stretched due to lack of funding and available beds. We need to make sure that youth homeless services have access to funding and a staffing plan in place that will allow for staff needing to take leave. And we need to make sure they have access to supplies to feed young people and maintain high standards of hygiene to decrease the risk of infection. Services are already reporting a desperate shortage of basic supplies like toilet paper and food amid panic buying.
We find ourselves in a pressing situation today that requires an urgent, practical solution. We need help on multiple fronts, and they can be delivered with the right funding support from the government. We need provisions to address the financial impact on staffing and adequate housing and staffing plans in the event of an outbreak, but we also need access to basic necessities like toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
We need guidance on how to keep youth homelessness services operational while still adhering to isolation requirements. We need to know how we can maintain the right staff levels and support the right staff attitudes towards the virus and those infected.
The right support channelled towards keeping our youth services in operation is the only way to help our young people get through the pandemic, so they can get back on track, live life and do all the things that many of us take for granted. Turning a blind eye to young people experiencing homelessness is a travesty.
A crisis, like this pandemic, can bring the worst out of people, with rampant selfish behaviour. But it can also bring out our best and is an opportunity for all of us to care for those who need it most. We are all responsible for the welfare of the vulnerable, but wouldn’t it be great if our government lead the way in supporting our young people experiencing homelessness?