OPINION | Last line of defence, front line of ending homelessness It has become quite the buzzword of 2020 – unprecedented. Now so common in our everyday vocabulary that it has almost started to lose its impact. But for housing, health and family violence services that have been working tirelessly for decades, and for those that have been without a safe and stable home, the coordinated and concerted effort to provide a Housing First response to people experiencing homelessness in Victoria during the pandemic has been - unprecedented. The enormity, complexity and immediacy of the work that has gone into rapidly accommodating and housing people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 crisis goes largely unseen, but the impact of that effort has seen the streets of Melbourne largely cleared of people sleeping in shopfronts, alleyways and under bridges. The collaborative response between the Department of Health & Human Services and sector agencies has allowed for the most effective and rapid response to homelessness I have seen in my 25 years of working in the housing and homelessness sector. Approximately 2,000 people are being temporarily accommodated in hotels across Melbourne and are being supported by a range of agencies, including our primary health and harm reduction services at Youth Projects. We have kept our doors open and maintained our assertive nursing services to respond to the ongoing and emerging needs of our clients and teams. We have mobilised our harm reduction services to provide assertive outreach in these hotels to provide clean injecting equipment, safer using advice, providing overdose awareness training, and distributing naloxone to people who use drugs, to save lives. Our brick and mortar services at The Living Room have also seen up to 75 – 100 people seeking access to a doctor or nurse, basic amenities like showers and laundry services, mental health support and alcohol and drug misuse every day. At times though, our most effective response has been to simply sit and listen to the genuine concerns and fears of the people accessing our services. Their experience of COVID-19 has been wildly different to most of us currently in a safe and stable home. Yet, despite the anxiety and uncertainty about where they will be staying and for how long, they look out for each other, wear their masks and respect the health restrictions. All the while with resilience, good humour, and compassion. They understand that we cannot provide the same “drop in” services we usually do and they express genuine worry about our front line teams, exhausted, but doing the best they can to continue providing high quality, person centred services. It has been these exact conversations that have informed our service response – our service users are the experts of their own COVID-19 experience and we need to harness that experience to inform effective, long term responses. The current government and sector response to homelessness in Melbourne has enabled the rapid housing of people experiencing homelessness, and pivot resources to deploy services wherever people are staying – a response that sets a standard for what the long term response should be in Victoria. We are now being met with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve something we have never really been able to grasp – to end homelessness. It is an opportunity that requires an unprecedented, long-term investment in bricks and mortar and wrap around supports to place and sustain people experiencing homelessness in stable and secure housing, enable greater social and economic participation, and help people realise their hopes and dreams. For many of our services users this is expressed simply as ‘a normal life’ – to have a job, meaningful relationships, a secure roof over their head, safety and security. Anything short of a sustained commitment to increased investment in social housing and wrap around supports will see some of our most vulnerable citizens slip back into the vicious cycle of insecure housing, poor health outcomes, exposure to violence, and exclusion from social and economic participation. Ending homelessness not only requires good social and economic policy, it requires political willpower. It requires you to demand a better deal for our most vulnerable members of the community at the ballot box or by lobbying your local MP. Don’t be afraid to ask them the question: what are you going to do if you get elected to solve homelessness? Homelessness Week serves as a reminder that there are vulnerable people in our own communities that are served poorly by an underfunded and disjointed system. We live in a first world country, yet we continue to accept homelessness as an intractable program that we would love to fix, if only we knew how. We do. We have seen the beginnings of effective change in Victoria and we know what can be achieved. Written by Richie Goonan, Operations Manager Community Health at Youth Projects. With 25 years’ experience in the housing and homelessness sector, Richie brings an authentic and adaptive leadership style, leading through positive decisions, driving change through motivation and inspiration leadership to achieve our goals and live out mission. In complex policy and operational environments, Richie finds creative and innovative solutions to achieve positive outcomes for our community health services.