The Courier will explore the experience of people experiencing homelessness in Ballarat and the staff who work to support them through a new five-week story series.
The series will feature five programs as part of Uniting Ballarat's housing and homelessness response, covering initial assessment and planning, private rental assistance, to supporting families at risk, housing support workers and finding a place to call home.
Many people experiencing homelessness who contact housing agency Uniting for help are shocked to hear staff will not immediately have a house for them, entry point worker Rosie Waddell says.
The sad reality is options for Uniting's entry point workers to provide housing support are extremely limited, particularly in the current climate of COVID-19 restrictions and health concerns.
Uniting Ballarat is currently working with more than 80 families and individuals who are being supported financially to stay in crisis accommodation in hotels and motels.
As of today, I don't think there is one single rental in Ballarat affordable to someone on JobSeeker.Adam Liversage, Uniting coordinator housing and homelessness
Those who have the option are supported to make contact with family, friends or sometimes distant relatives to have a roof over their head at crisis point.
But the daily struggle and heartbreak for these workers on the coalface of homelessness is the almost non-existence of an exit point to a long-term stable housing option.
Ms Waddell, Jacinta Pillar, Dexter Erasmus and Jascinta Rose are entry point workers with Uniting Ballarat's Initial Assessment and Planning (IAP) team.
Uniting is the entry point for access to all homelessness services in Ballarat.
The entry point creates one point of contact for housing support, removing the risk of people having to call multiple organisations and tell their story over again.
People who make contact with a Uniting entry point worker are assessed to determine the support they require.
Ms Waddell said this included gathering information about their age, their location, their situation, their income, whether they have mental health problems, drug and alcohol issues and have experienced family violence.
She said people experienced homelessness due to a diverse range of factors from family violence, family and relationship breakdown, a notice to vacate or financial difficulty due to unemployment.
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People who are assessed suitable are placed on a priority list for support and housing.
"We explain to them... the support will probably come reasonably quickly but the transitional housing accommodation, we can't give a guarantee that will occur," Ms Waddell said.
The connection to support will depend on a person or family's situation; women with children could be referred to a case worker at SalvoConnect, youth to Berry Street or men with children to Child and Family Services (Cafs).
People must be engaged with a support worker to be placed in transitional or public housing.
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Ms Waddell said staff could not give a guarantee they would be able to help with transitional housing as a lack of supply and low turnover in the system left almost no options.
"Due to the low turnover in public housing and difficulty getting into the private rental market, people who are in our transitional housing properties may in the past have only been there three to six months, but they are now there up to four years, on average two years," she said.
"Instead of having that turnover, we have that bottleneck."
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Uniting entry point staff will work with clients to arrange crisis accommodation and manage an interim response.
This is to find out if there is a friend, family member of distant relative they can stay with until they can arrange a longer term solution.
If not, the only option remaining is for Uniting to provide financial support for the client to stay in hotel and motel accommodation.
Ms Pillar said COVID-19 restrictions had limited people's options, particularly young people who couch surf, as they could no longer go and stay at their family member's house in Melbourne.
"It really limited the accommodation options available. A lot lost jobs as well," she said.
"Normally they would have had a couch surfing option until we could look at a transitional property but that is quite limited now with restrictions."
Uniting received increased government funding to cope with the increasing number of clients needing to be placed into motels and hotels throughout the pandemic.
We have got a very good supportive team because it is a little bit heartbreaking. Your potential for outcomes is not great.Rosie Waddell, Uniting entry point worker
The IAP team is currently checking in with around 70 to 80 individuals or families living in hotels or motels each week, to touch base, support with referrals and material aid like food relief options.
"The local accommodation providers have been working with us during COVID and giving us a lot more options like weekly rates and have been understanding of the people we are putting in there and their experiences," Ms Pillar said.
Uniting Ballarat housing and homelessness coordinator Adam Liversage said living in motels and hotels was stressful for relationships and financially, as people had to co-pay with Uniting and resort to more expensive food options like takeaway due to a lack of cooking and food storage facilities.
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Mr Liversage said the need for homelessness support was 'huge' and too overwhelming for the current team of entry point workers to keep up with.
"IAP is the most overworked program in terms of a response to homelessness but under-resourced as well," he said.
"I think last year we met our yearly statistics after 22 weeks. We have the addition of COVID-19 this year.
"Uniting is trying to put a case to the department to start resourcing our entry points better so we can cope with the demand of those presenting as homeless and needing assistance."
There are currently 121 individuals or family units on Uniting's priority list for support or housing and an additional 61 households on the youth priority list for ages 18 to 25.
Ms Waddell said the IAP team was currently trialling an appointment system to keep up with the 'huge' need.
She said there was a 'bit of a lull' when COVID-19 first hit, as a flood of Airbnb properties could not cater for tourists so took on tenants for six month leases.
"Accessing private rentals has pretty much stopped since the initial COVID period. We understand it is less than one per cent vacancy in Ballarat," Ms Waddell said.
"Historically if you are on Youth Allowance or JobSeeker, to afford to get into the rental market as an individual has been impossible. Even with families when they apply for rentals, average family rental now is well over $300.
"I had a gentleman today who has come into the region from Gippsland, is certain he will get a rental, has done no homework before coming here, and is staying with a friend a few nights.
"I said the reality is you will be like everyone else here, there is the odd miracle you will apply for one or two and you will get one of them but it is going to be a hard task, so he will be looking at motel accommodation indefinitely."
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Ms Waddell said public housing had not been an option due to a lack of supply.
"There is the odd miracle through the Street 2 Home program but they have to be long-term homeless, as rough sleepers get a higher priority," she said.
"We have literally no exit options for families other than motels."
Mr Liversage said an increasing number of people moving to Ballarat from Melbourne would also impact the rental market.
"As of today, I don't think there is one single rental in Ballarat affordable to someone on JobSeeker," he said.
Ms Waddell said she was expecting more people to seek housing help in the coming months if the moratorium on evictions is ended and if Airbnb properties end their six-month leases and revert to tourism operations.
She said it was 'heartbreaking' for workers dealing with clients in crisis because the potential for outcomes was 'not great'.
"We have got a very good supportive team because it is a little bit heartbreaking. Your potential for outcomes is not great," Ms Waddell said.
"We don't lose the empathy. We have learnt not to get dragged into the stories so you have totally lost the focus but you don't lose the empathy and the understanding."
"We really do feel for them. They are constantly ringing us and saying they are deteriorating and running out of options," Ms Pillar said.
"Sometimes they are sharing really personal stuff of their trauma. They might be ringing about housing options but they are sharing everything else, the reasons behind why they became homeless."
Mr Liversage said the lack of a co-ordinated government response to homelessness was frustrating.
"We know what the answers are out there. We know we need more social housing, we know we need more money, we need programs to address mental health, we need long-term fixes," he said.
"We need a bipartisan agreement across the country to our country's response to homelessness, it starts right there.
"All the state governments are doing their own thing. There is no consistency in response to homelessness."
"It is knee-jerk reactions and it is the bandaid," Ms Waddell said.
"They throw money at placing people in motels. We want them to build social housing."
People experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness in Ballarat can contact Uniting on 5332 1286 or the 24-hour Victorian hotline for assistance on 1800 825 955.
Emergency relief for those experiencing financial difficulty is also available through a number of Ballarat organisations including Uniting, Centacare and Salvation Army.
The Courier will focus on Uniting's private rental assistance program next Saturday.