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'Tsunami Of Homelessness': The Fight To Protect Australia's Rough Sleepers During Coronavirus

The federal government is being urged to prevent "a tsunami of homelessness" and protect those already sleeping rough who are at significant risk of developing coronavirus.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 116,000 Australians are homeless on any given night. Coronavirus is an added stress for those who are already sleeping rough or at a high risk of homelessness, Chair Executive Officer of NSW Council of Social Service Joanna Quilty told 10 daily.

"Putting in place practices like washing hands and social distancing can be increasingly difficult if you're sleeping rough on the street," Quilty said.

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"I'm not aware of any measures in place [to help homeless Australians] at the moment. The people I've spoken to are very concerned. They're doing it tough on the best of days. COVID-19 is an added stress," she added.

There are worries that those who are on a low-income, sleeping rough or disabled will slip through the cracks if cases of coronavirus continue to escalate.

"They're often in poor health and will be at a higher risk of COVID-19, they often don't have family members or loved ones to call on in times of trouble," Quilty said.

The NSW Council of Social Service is urging the government to place a moratorium on housing evictions and release emergency funding for those at risk.

Quilty said moving homeless people into empty housing is not the best option due to the highly-infectious nature of the disease.

"We need to think about alternative models of care for clients who contract COVID-19, so they can get high quality care in isolation," she said.

"We certainly want rapid rehousing but we have to be careful that we're not moving them into housing that is equally high-risk. Too many people in a makeshift set-up won't minimise risk of contracting coronavirus."

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Jenny Leong MP, NSW Greens spokesperson on Housing and Homelessness, started a petition on Monday urging the government to place a moratorium on evictions.

"If we don't take this necessary step we will see people who don't have secure incomes - casuals, freelancers, students, hospitality staff, retail workers and those in the creative industries - suffer even further," Leong told 10 daily.

"People with insecure work are also likely to be those with insecure housing - and they are the people also most likely taking a massive hit to their incomes due to the cancellation of major events and changes to how people are eating out, socialising and going about their daily lives for the foreseeable future."

"Groups identified as 'at risk' should not have to make the decision as to whether to put their health or their home first."

A homeless man packs up his tent in Martin Place, Sydney. Image: Getty

Close to 51,000 Australians already live in severely overcrowded housing, with multiple families sharing a single home. The risk of infection for these Australians is high, with many unable to effectively self-isolate if they contract COVID-19.

The Council To Homeless Persons is calling upon the government to provide alternative accommodation for those in overcrowded housing who need to self-isolate, such as a motel or AirBnb.

CHP is also requesting emergency payments to casual and contract workers who may be forced onto the street as a result of losing work during the pandemic.

"The median weekly rent in Sydney is $540, and in Melbourne it's $430. Newstart payments are only $279.50, plus rent assistance of $69," said Jenny Smith, Chair of Homelessness Australia.

Smith says the Newstart Allowance and Sickness Benefit are completely inadequate to cover people’s rent and need to be increased.

"Even with the Government’s stimulus support of $750, people will barely be able to keep the wolf from the door for a fortnight."

“This is no time for Australian families to be worried about being pushed out into the street when they are already worried about keeping their family safe from COVID-19.”

10 daily has contacted the Department of Social Services for comment.

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