The Victorian Government Is Forcing People Into Homelessness And Lying About It

The government claims that it is not evicting rough sleepers into homelessness, but Junkee has spoken to numerous sources who say that this is a lie.

homelessness Whitelion

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Living without stable housing is a detriment to your health, as the pandemic has made painfully clear. In Victoria during hard lockdown, authorities shrewdly housed around 2800 homeless people in hotels, but this number has since dwindled to a few hundred.

The government claims that it is not evicting rough sleepers into homelessness, but Junkee has spoken to numerous sources who say that this is a lie.

The Community Union Defence League runs a street kitchen for rough sleepers every Sunday at the State Library, and in Dandenong on other days. Joseph, the lead program organiser, told Junkee about a recent street kitchen which police shut down.

“We were kettled by police. About a dozen cop cars rocked up, and they said we’d broken council by-laws and that we needed to pack up. We’re only giving them tea and coffee and some grub. If they’ve got an issue with homelessness, why don’t they hit up the Department of Housing?”

Over the last few weeks, CUDL has solicited donations of tents, sleeping bags and blankets for rough sleepers, including those forced out of hotel rooms. “There were about a dozen people there who had nowhere else to go,” Joseph said, “DHHS and service providers have passed the buck along, so we bought tents for people.”

I ask whether he’s seen people evicted from hotels into homelessness. “Mate,” he says, “I’ve got two people who were kicked out of a hotel last night in my living room right now. It’s happening.”

Back in July, the Premier unambiguously promised to extend current hotel accommodation until April next year, but the money evaporated. By November, housing agencies across the city started to push people out. The Renters & Housing Union organised a demonstration outside a hotel as it evicted 40 people in a single day.

Adriana, a homeless support worker at RAHU, has been on the frontline throughout the pandemic and talked to Junkee about how the system works.

“Agencies might offer people rooming houses which are sub-par at best. They’re expensive and unhygienic, there might only be one toilet to ten people. And they’re often unsafe for women, LGBTIQ people, as well as for people with dependencies, poor mental health and disabilities.”

“I know people who’ve never been homeless in their lives and applied for 20 or more places and got rejected from all of them. And I’ve worked with a lot of trans women and the offers they get are just horrendous.”

There’s no second offer either. Should someone turn down a rooming house because it is unaffordable or unsafe or overcrowded or hundreds of kilometres away from their community, they are told to ‘self-resolve’ their homelessness.

This kind of administrative language conceals the callousness of the system. People are ‘consumers’ who are not evicted but ‘exited’ from emergency accommodation. If rough sleepers turn down the poisoned chalice of rooming houses, the government uses it as a pretence to abandon them.

The implication is, of course, that homelessness is a ‘choice’ and that rough sleepers lack determination. However, homelessness is not an individual problem but a failure of policy.

Junkee also spoke with Alex* who is a frontline worker at a private housing service. I asked them what they thought about the government’s claim that they aren’t evicting people into homelessness.

“I think it’s a lie, I don’t think it’s true. I know services are evicting people with really crappy offers. The housing they’re offered is completely unaffordable for people on welfare, you might only be left with $15 a week. People are being told to sleep rough or couch surf.”

Adriana agrees. “The government has given a lot of people a false promise and now the’ve backtracked,” she says, “People aren’t falling through cracks, they’re being thrown into giant canyons.”

Junkee understands that many rough sleepers in hotel accommodation recently received a text message saying they must leave by the end of December. The optics of kicking people out over Christmas are horrendous, so this date was quietly pushed back to January 2021.

Junkee can also reveal that at least one service provider is leaving dozens of rooms empty on any given week, even while people are sleeping rough. Junkee interviewed Cameron* who has first-hand knowledge of the situation.

“During hard lockdown the City of Melbourne pushed to get everyone off the streets. Going forward service providers needed to save money, so they bulk bought rooms. Without a doubt, there’s always vacant rooms.”

This same service provider is turning people away, apparently due to budget constraints, but Cameron says “that’s nothing new.”

“Services are short staffed, there might be 150 calls a day but only two people taking calls and 3-6 people doing duty work. It’s first come first served and if you come in after 9 AM it’ll be difficult to get a response.”

Cameron is also critical of the government’s claim that it isn’t pushing people onto the street.

“It’s not true, it’s just not true. I know at least 15-20 people just off the top of my head who’ve been evicted to the street already. The premise is that they’re rejecting a housing option but in reality they’re rejecting a rooming house”

“Rooming houses are a public health risk. They’re overcrowded, they’re unclean, they’re unsafe, there’s almost no oversight. Rooming house providers directly profit from how fucked the homelessness response is. It is an industry of marginalisation.”

This is nothing new to homeless people either.

“It’s no surprise to people experiencing homelessness to be let down by services or the government, but it stings more because there was this promise of stable housing. I was talking to someone in hotel accommodation and they asked me, ‘If you can’t stop us from getting evicted can you at least get us a tent?’”

I ask Cameron if they’re okay, and they start to cry over the phone. “No one’s ever asked me that. I got assaulted, I know other workers who were assaulted. People will sometimes tell workers that they’ll kill themselves if they don’t get a room.”

“I was talking to a person escaping a domestic violence situation on the phone, or to someone overdosing. People cry at work and it’s normal. I don’t even know where to begin.”

“All day you absorb trauma and try to find a solution with what little resources you have. You’re just gripping at straws.”

The government proved that we could end homelessness overnight if we genuinely cared about homeless people. Instead, authorities were merely interested in warehousing homeless bodies which they perceived as a threat to public health. Now case numbers are under control, and they are indifferent once more.

On the one hand, the government can spin that people are ‘choosing’ homelessness by turning down unsafe or expensive rooming houses. On the other, they can say they’re not technically evicting people because they’re making service providers do it by not providing enough resources.

Still, these are ruthless arguments that only make sense to bureaucrats who are dead behind the eyes. . Authorities can point the finger at homeless people and service providers all they want. Ultimately, though, the buck stops with officials who set the agenda, direct policy and allocate budgets.

“If we were properly resourced someone wouldn’t have assaulted me,” Cameron explains. “The situation wasn’t a personal attack, I wasn’t the villain and neither were they. It’s government. The solution is simple: public housing and support with no ridiculous hurdles.”

The pandemic has emphasised the reality that we are only as healthy as the least well-off in our communities, and that everyone deserves a home.

The government should provide emergency accommodation until April, as promised, and ensure that housing options are reasonable and safe.

More than that, it should commit to what homeless people are asking for, namely properly resourced services, organised peer support and public housing.

The fact that anyone was turned away during the pandemic makes it clear that the existing quasi-privatised system is inadequate. After years of neglect, what we need is systemic change. At the very least, the government could be honest about evicting people with nowhere to go.

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of workers who are at risk of losing their jobs for speaking to media. Junkee reached out to Launch Housing but they declined to comment. Junkee also sent DHHS a detailed list of questions but the Department refused to answer them directly.

Joshua Badge is a queer writer and philosopher living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. They tweet at @joshuabadge.