Rough sleeping surges in the Ranges

A shed where someone has been sleeping rough in the Yarra Ranges.

While businesses grapple to stay open and employees struggle on reduced hours, bills continue to pile high, rent continues to fall due and bellies continue to grumble.

For many across the Yarra Ranges, the impact of lockdown has become unbearable, with a local homelessness support service seeing a surge in those reaching out for help.

CEO of Holy Fools, Neal Taylor, said his organisation has seen a “dramatic increase in people wanting to take food and hampers” since the first Covid-19 lockdown.

“We have handed out lots of hampers and taken them to people who have been placed in motels during lockdown, but we’ve also helped people at their homes who are in danger of losing their home so they’ve at least got some food to feed their families,” Mr Taylor said.

And that is the heartbreaking reality of this pandemic. People in jobs they once considered to be stable are finding themselves in a newfound position of vulnerability, and with JobKeeper axed, for many the income is just not there.

“We have spoken to people who have just lost their jobs or have lost their accommodation because of losing their jobs due to Covid, and they are sleeping rough or in their cars,” Mr Taylor said.

“Majority of those people are fairly positive and working very hard to rectify the situation.

Mr Taylor said other local support agencies have also seen an increase in people at danger of becoming homeless because of lockdown and job losses.

The state government introduced a Home for Homeless Scheme last year which has seen thousands of rough sleepers offered hotel accommodation during the pandemic.

“The state government was very bold and said all people in motels would get accommodation, and yes, most of them have, but unfortunately its only for two years and after that they’ve got to work out their own situation again. The problem is that most people who are rough sleeping don’t fit the criteria for many of the places offering winter accommodation,” he said.

The reason many don’t meet “criteria” is often to do with addiction and related factors, Mr Taylor said.

And when on the streets, the restrictions imposed by a lockdown make it difficult to seek help.

“The problem with lockdown is that sometimes people don’t understand where they can get help and it’s a big scary proposition. People get afraid with the 5km/ph limit and feel that they can’t go get help because they’re stuck within the 5km/ph or now 10km/ph limit,” he said.

Mr Taylor said that he has noticed some local agencies that support the homeless have shut down during lockdown, but said there are “still several open”.

“I think there is still a shortage of awareness around where people can go to get some help with food,” he said.

Holy Fools run a “Street Angels” free food service each Wednesday from Melba Park, Lilydale, and have continued to do so in a Covid-safe way to ensure bellies are full.

“We have been following all the restrictions, everyone’s in masks, hand sanitiser is available and we don’t encourage people to hang around. We just provide a take away lunch and ask them that they don’t hang around and we don’t put our chairs out, which means we miss out on the social interaction,” Mr Taylor said.

“The lockdown has affected lots of things. With our Street Angels we are getting less numbers with people afraid to venture out over the limit and feeling a bit afraid about interacting with other people,” he said.

Mr Taylor said discussions were had between Holy Fools volunteers and those experiencing homelessness at last weeks Street Angels around the Covid-19 vaccine as a further protection.

“People were very misinformed about the vaccination and what it would entail, so we are hoping to work with them around that,” he said.

With an increase in people sleeping rough and in cars, Mr Taylor’s advice to community members is to simply acknowledge others as human beings.

“I’m not encouraging people to go up and talk to people. But acknowledge them, give them a wave, majority of them are very alone because of the fact there is a bit of a fear. A smile goes a long way to helping them understand they are still a part of the community,” he said.

Despite the need for help being at an all-time high, monetary donations to Holy Fools have dropped. Anyone wishing to help can contribute at www.holyfools.org.au.