Climate change makes rough sleeping rougher for the Illawarra’s homeless

Recent torrential rain and flooding in the Illawarra caused damage to homes, power outages and inconvenience to commuters and road users who grumbled about ongoing, daily disruptions and delays. Far less visible was the desperate search by the region’s homeless to find somewhere safe and dry to wait out the bad conditions. For those who have no place to call home and subsequently ‘sleep rough’ – often in parks, beaches or train stations – finding shelter during sudden, extreme weather events is tough, and Australia’s changing climate means they’re going to be faced with having to seek shelter more often.

Source: illawarramercury.com.au Photo: Sylvia Liber

More than eight hundred of the world’s top climate scientists from over seventy countries spent five years compiling the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in 2014. The report warned that climate change is the single greatest threat to humanity and the planet. In Australia, one of the main effects will be an increased frequency and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall events.

Founding councillor of the Climate Council and Macquarie University ecologist, Professor Lesley Hughes, says the impact of future extreme weather events in Australia and on those experiencing homelessness will be multifaceted. “Virtually all the climate modelling indicates that extreme events will continue to increase in frequency and/or severity. We are expecting ongoing increases in extreme hot weather, but also decreases in extreme cold weather, so for people living rough there will be both positives and negatives.”

This doesn’t mean that finding shelter during heavy rainfall and flooding will be any easier for the region’s homeless. The Illawarra and South Coast Tenants’ Service’s Warren Wheeler, whose focus there is on equipping tenants with the tools they need to prevent them from becoming homeless, says recent changes to Government funding for emergency accommodation has major implications: “It resulted in a number of local services merging, closing, or radically changing the services they provide. In real terms, this resulted in a loss of beds in the region.

“Governments are more and more expecting social services to be self-funded. It’s an ‘expensive’ exercise looking after the community and the Government doesn’t want that burden. Funding cuts – and funding freezes where there’s no increase in line with demand – can only result in people being turned away.”

“In the event of a natural disaster, councils open up community halls and the like to provide for those suddenly without shelter. Sadly, the same treatment is not afforded to those who are homeless everyday.”

Rough sleepers Shaky and Kevin, two men aged in their forties, said that they had slept on trains to stay warm, travelling back and forth along the Illawarra line. This comes with risks, such as getting train fines and being kicked off the train in a foreign area. Fines then impact their ability to manage finances and prohibit getting licences. Said one, “I’ve been hit with a bottle, and then spent time in hospital before being let out in the same wet clothes I had on when I first got there.”

They said others sleeping rough sometimes band together with their limited resources. When sharing with people who have drug and alcohol problems, this can create problems if they then continue to stay with or around them.

“Apart from trains, there are few places to stay and more people are turning to office blocks and car parks to stay warm. Being exposed to the elements is too hard when it’s this cold and wet.”

One woman who experienced homelessness in Wollongong and who wishes to remain anonymous said that during torrential storms and flooding, she was able to go to a refuge. Her homeless Aboriginal friends however, had to rely on other Indigenous people in the community for help: “They stay with other Indigenous mainly, or ex homeless. Basically, Indigenous means everyone shares.”

For those with an animal companion, Wheeler says finding shelter is even less likely: “This is an ongoing problem. For some people, a pet may be all the companionship they have. Housing NSW have the standard “we house people, not pets” response to those looking for shelter with an animal. I have assisted many clients who have chosen homelessness rather than having to give away their pet. That’s a sad reality.”

Wollongong Homeless Hub support worker Lee Robinson said “I am aware of only one service in the Shoalhaven area that used to allow men with mental health issues to keep their dogs with them on long term accommodation in a very rural setting, but nothing in relation to services or agencies that cater for animals in emergency conditions.”

“The biggest issue faced by the region’s homeless during extreme weather events is to their health and finding a dry place to sleep. Continual cold conditions cause overall health issues. Lack of showering and washing facilities also make it hard to stay warm, dry and clean. The Homeless Hub has purchased a washing machine for this reason, which clients can use during the day after booking in at no cost.”

Wheeler says an overhaul of current Australian tenancy legislation would help to reduce homelessness and therefore the numbers of people seeking emergency accommodation during extreme weather events: “Australia is one of the few countries in the world that allow ‘no just cause’ termination of tenancies. This means that if you assert your rights to your landlord, you can be given your marching orders and the landlord does not need to justify their actions.

“The effect on this is two-fold. Firstly, it undermines tenants rights, as tenants are too scared to assert them. Secondly, where a tenant does assert their rights, it can and does lead to homelessness. There is a cultural understanding here that a landlord is “entitled to get their property back” if they want it. This is not a view shared by many other countries around the world. Get rid of ‘no just cause’ evictions and we’re one step closer to solving homelessness.”

Until such time as Australia has solved its homelessness issues, Professor Hughes says there are ways the community can be better prepared to cope with sudden, extreme weather events, and provide assistance to those experiencing homelessness: “We need good health alert systems for times of extreme weather, and need to resource our health and emergency services appropriately to handle increased risks.”

There are also opportunities for those who want to help homelessness support agencies by donating goods, money, services or volunteering. “Work within the community you know,” says Wheeler. “Whether it’s your local school, place of work, knitting club, book club, pub mates… Passion is infectious and once your community, your mates see your passion they’ll want to jump on board. Also, be creative. Passing a hat around is all fine n’ dandy, but if you can have fun with it, then everyone’s life is a little bit richer as a result.”

The Wollongong Homeless Hub welcomes donations. Phone (02) 4244 4121 to find out how you can contribute funds or items for ‘rough-sleeper’ kits, toiletry and food packages.

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