The Evolution of Emergency Accommodation

6 Jun, 2016

Che BishopFrom Che Bishop – Chief Operating Officer

“In 2011, when people arrived homeless at the Asylum Seekers Centre we were able to use our partnership with Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation (BASF) to provide emergency financial relief. Sometimes it would be accommodation for a few nights in a backpackers’ hostel or a boarding house and then we would refer them for government-funded support through Red Cross who, at that time, was the only source of that kind of government assistance. And because it happened quite quickly it meant that people weren’t homeless and destitute for long periods.

In 2012, people who had arrived by boat in the previous years, started to be released from detention. So there were a lot of people, mainly single men, who had been in detention often for up to 2 years, who had very limited support from the government and were experiencing homelessness. In the middle of 2012 we got some extra funding and were able to provide additional financial relief on top of what they were receiving from BASF. Some of that money would be given to clients to help them pay their own rent and some would be used to accommodate them in hostels.

When I became Casework Manager in January 2013 there was an ever-increasing need for emergency accommodation, not only for people who had arrived by boat but also those newly arrived by plane; not only single people but also families. We found it was taking longer for them to be approved for government financial support, so that meant we needed to find even more funds. I should add that at that time the Jesuit Refugee Service of Australia (JRS) and House of Welcome had for many years provided accommodation to asylum seekers in Sydney. When people needing accommodation came to us, we would refer them to House of Welcome or JRS, and Red Cross for government support. So there were a number of options and we would only step in if there were no other solutions.

Asylum seekers are not eligible for public housing in New South Wales. There is very limited availability at the small number of crisis refuges where the expectation is that people can use their Centrelink payments to cover the cost. Most refuges only have a couple of places available for people who have no source of income so it is very difficult for asylum seekers to get in.

During 2013, the need just kept increasing and the current resources couldn’t keep up. Melanie Noden (our previous CEO), spoke up about it at an inter-agency meeting with the then head of Homelessness Services (City of Sydney) who introduced her to some people at St George Community Housing. They had some properties that were empty because they were due to be sold. They couldn’t accommodate their own tenants there because they had to guarantee them long-term housing, but they could lease 2 properties in Peakhurst to us on a short-term basis at a reduced rent. We had the houses for 6 months and decided to start with a model providing short-term accommodation only, as we didn’t want to replicate what JRS and House of Welcome already did, but we wanted to meet the needs of homeless asylum seekers who were turning up at our door.

In 2013, the Sisters of Charity Foundation was looking for significant projects with which to mark their 175th Anniversary and so we submitted a proposal in which we identified the continuing need for emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. We suggested they buy a building that we could use for this purpose and advised them about what would be suitable. In 2014, they purchased Providence House in the inner west. There are 4 units with 3 occupied by families and one for single women. In addition we now have 2 units through Bridge Housing in the inner city, one for a family and one for single men. In total we can accommodate a maximum of 24 people.

Inner city accommodation

Inner city accommodation

At our Emergency Accommodation our clients are given an occupancy agreement that isn’t a lease or rental agreement because they pay nothing. We pay the rent and utilities (in the case of Providence House, the Sisters of Charity Foundation provide this to us rent-free), we furnish them and they are fully set up and ready to move into. The client signs an agreement that they will live in this housing for a period of 4 weeks, which can be extended, and we provide them with emergency financial payments to cover their daily living expenses and travel costs. We have housing for single men or women, where they share a bedroom and the rest of the unit, and we have housing for family groups.

Also there are often clients who are staying with friends or family, or renting a room somewhere, so with the generous support of the BASF we help them financially so they can contribute to the rent at the place where they’re staying. The caseworkers work with clients to sustain that arrangement because it means they can stay in an area with people they know. The majority of people currently occupying our facilities are people who have very recently arrived in Australia and don’t have any of those connections. The average length of stay is around 3 months.

Emergency accommodation is run across several different ASC teams because there are so many different aspects to it that don’t sit just with one person or even one team. Robin Webb heads the team in Casework and they are responsible for the client side of things. They identify which clients are homeless and whether they would be suitable to share with other people. The caseworkers stay in very close contact to ensure the client’s ongoing welfare and help resolve any problems that might arise. They can make sure that the clients are complying with the occupancy agreement and that they are looking for independent accommodation.

The caseworkers are very much involved with the people in the accommodation whereas Kristine De Guzman, Resources and Administration Manager, is responsible for coordinating the maintenance and leasing side of things. The units that we lease from Bridge Housing are very simple because they have their own maintenance team but with Providence House we arrange all the maintenance and repairs ourselves. We have a number of volunteers who are professional builders and tradespeople who have been able help us out. Jenny Tracey and Jamie Lee, from the Material Support team, are responsible for the furnishings, appliances, bedding and kitchen equipment. It works pretty well and the teams have found a way of working well together. “

RobinFrom Robin Webb – Caseworker and Accommodation Coordinator

A social worker with local and international experience, Robin has worked both in the private, not-for-profit and government sectors. She has a great interest in the push factors that contribute to the displacement of people and she is passionate about working with clients who are awaiting the outcome of a Protection Visa application.

“All the emergency housing units are set up in such a way that they are literally ready to live in immediately. They are fully furnished with all the basics needed for someone seeking asylum who has just stepped off a plane with only the clothes they stand in. Just getting themselves to Australia has often consumed all the funds they had when they left home.

Giving an asylum seeker somewhere safe to live for a few weeks, rent free and stress free, allows them to source the necessary documents for their application process and to search for more permanent housing. Usually the understanding is that they will stay for 4 weeks or so but it will never be a long term solution.

Putting together the funds for a bond and several weeks rent in advance can be an impossible hurdle so we work collaboratively with government-funded organisations (Red Cross, Settlement Services International, Life Without Barriers and Marist Youth Care) and Centrelink to make it a possibility.

Eventually it is hoped the casework team will be able to help clients in short term housing to access community services such as multi-cultural resources and adjusting to the peculiarities of Australian rental housing.”

JamieFrom Jamie Lee – Material Aid Team

“The four units in Providence House are fully self-contained; each furnished with beds, dining table, sofa, hanging racks, ironing board, iron and television.

The kitchens include pots, pans, a microwave, a kettle, a toaster, and sometimes a rice cooker or a slow cooker, if we have been able to source these, and all the required crockery and cutlery. All the electrical items are tested to ensure they meet safety standards, so we usually buy these new rather than accepting donated items.

Consumables such as toilet paper, cleaning liquids, and bin liners though designed to last a month, are replaced as needed after each fortnightly inspection.

On arrival each client is presented with a doona, doona cover, pillow, mattress protector and a bed linen pack. These items are allocated to each individual client and they are encouraged to take them with them when they leave. We have a large supply of these, thanks to a donation from St Vincent’s Private Hospital.”

KristineFrom Kristine De Guzman – Resources and Administration Manager

“We ensure that Work Health and Safety (WHS) compliance is met at the properties we manage and I take care of the lease contracts and rental payments with the owners. I also plan the logistics and action maintenance and repairs in conjunction with the Material Aid team.”