The number of people seeking help for homelessness and food relief has increased starkly in Ballarat since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with one support service saying more needs to be done to address the housing crisis.
Uniting Ballarat has seen "record numbers" of people reaching out for support during the last year. In the 2020-2021 financial year, 1891 people experiencing homelessness or a housing crisis contacted the not-for-profit's homeless entry point. It was an increase from 1200 the year before.
Uniting's Senior Manager of Homelessness and Housing, Adam Liversage, described the situation as "pretty dire" and said a number of factors were contributing.
Around a third of daily referrals are currently family violence related, while other factors are financial hardship and the ever looming issue of a lack of affordable and social housing.
"Since the deduction of the Job Seeker allowance, people can no longer afford their rentals or they have fallen into rental arrears," Mr Liversage explained.
He said these issues were being compounded by an influx of people from urban areas, such as Melbourne, moving to the region and driving up the cost of housing.
"It's making the rental market a lot tougher and out of reach for our consumers," he said. "Affordability is still around 0.4 per cent for anyone who is on Job Seeker."
The high rent means many people are finding themselves in positions where they simply cannot afford to put food on their tables.
Through its Breezeways meals program, almost 35,000 meals have been served up in the last year, compared to just over 18,000 the year before.
Of this,19,000 hot meals were served and more than 16,000 sandwich packs given out, up from almost 11,000 hot meals last year and more than 7500 sandwich packs.
Mr Liversage said this increase in people seeking food relief was due to "a multitude" of reasons.
"People are just genuinely battling. COVID-19 has had an impact, people have lost their jobs and the cost of rent and utilities is really expensive.
"If you're on Centrelink benefits, it's even more of a battle."
But he said individuals and families on average incomes were also feeling the pressure and turning to services for support.
"It's right across the board now, whereas in the past that might not have been the case."
While the not-for-profit has assisted 1569 people into some form of crisis accommodation during the last 12 months, about 200 people are still on the priority list waiting for some form of medium to long-term accommodation.
People are just genuinely battling. COVID-19 has had an impact, people have lost their jobs and the cost of rent and utilities is really expensive. If you're on Centrelink benefits, it's even more of a battleAdam Liversage
When Mr Liversage first started working in the area about 13 years ago, families would stay in transitional housing for an average of six to twelve months, but now people are living in what is meant to be temporary housing for between two and four years.
"That really bottlenecks our transitional housing properties but there is no other place for them, which makes it really hard," he said.
With extra support from the government, Uniting is currently supporting 45 households, including 24 children, in hotels and motels to keep them off the streets.
Many of these people were couch surfing prior to the lockdown, and with its announcement had nowhere else to go. Amid the current lockdown, the number is rising every single day.
Though aside from the cost, when tourists flock to the area outside of lockdowns this becomes more challenging, though there are simply not enough houses available for these people to move into.
The outreach team is continuing to work with around 30 rough sleepers across the region - from Ararat across to Lake Bolac and down to Bacchus Marsh - though they know this number does not reflect the true number of people sleeping on the streets or in their cars.
Mr Liversage said rough sleepers, mostly singles or couples, not only lived on the city's streets, but also in tents and swags in forested areas around Ballarat, as well as at camp sites and on the Lake Burrumbeet foreshore.
Support workers receive calls from police, councils and various other government departments, such as Parks Victoria, and visit rough sleepers across a wide area to see if they can help. While often they try to find them housing, it is challenging with so little supply.
Mr Liversage described housing shortages as "disheartening" for both staff and consumers.
"Everyone does the best they can but having no housing makes it really hard.
"Everything is bottle necked and we are really worried about it," he said, adding that Uniting would continue to do what they could but it was a difficult and anxious time for many.
"It's not a nice thing to live in a state of uncertainty. Everyone deserves a place to call their home and take pride in."
Housing is "the anchor" people base their lives around - once they have secure housing they can begin to access support in other areas of their life, address health issues, access education and get involved in the community.
"I think the ship has really sailed for the rental market. I don't think it will ever return to any affordability for our consumers, definitely not in the short term and I can't see it happening in the long term either."
He said the only solution was more affordable and social housing.
Uniting has pledged $20 million to address the affordable housing shortage in Victoria and Tasmania, also planning to build 500 new social and affordable houses across Victoria during the next five years.
Through its private rental assistance program (PRAP), Uniting helps those who have secured housing to maintain their tenancy and to purchase furniture and white goods.
It has helped 649 consumers pay rent in advance or bonds to secure a rental, while also supporting more than 750 people with tenancy and rent arrears.
Mr Liversage said rental arrears could be the result of financial challenges amid job losses or insecure work, as well as mental health struggles and drug and alcohol dependence. Uniting works with people who haven't paid their rent and their real estate agent to help them sustain their tenancy to stop the cycle of homelessness.
People experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness in Ballarat can contact Uniting on 5332 1286 or by calling the 24-hour Victorian hotline on 1800 825 955.
Read part two, Karen's story, tomorrow.
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