People without homes and people living in vulnerable housing situations have long been a source of concern for the government. Not for their lack of housing, you understand, but for their living arrangements putting them at high risk of spreading COVID-19.
Last year, when the first wave of COVID swept the country, state and territory governments responded by housing people without homes – single-handedly solving the homelessness crisis in one move.
Once the pandemic relaxed, those same people were turfed out once again to fend for themselves.
As the Delta outbreak grew in Sydney, the state responded with familiar tactics, housing those sleeping rough and yet again proving that homelessness is a choice that the government makes.
Now, the city of Sydney is on a major vaccine push as it attempts to vaccinate its way out of the current predicament. Homeless and vulnerable people living in central Sydney are key demographics of this rush to get vaccinated, and almost 4,000 doses have been administered to them since a joint clinic was set up in May.
People without homes have historically been somewhat vaccine-hesitant, not always trusting government and those in positions of authority to have their best interests at heart.
However, Julie Smith, the health services manager at St Vincent de Paul’s Matthew Talbot hostel, has said she has seen a dramatic drop in vaccine hesitancy over the past 12 weeks among Sydney’s homeless community.
“Initially there was some hesitancy, but week on week it has just grown, word has travelled, people have been telling their neighbours … word has spread and the word has been very positive,” Smith told Guardian Australia.
“It has been very positive feedback, a lot of the local community are really, really grateful that they have got it and the experience has been really positive – efficient and effective and people are kind to them.
“I think 12 weeks ago if you took a snapshot of the whole population there were all different types of hesitancy, but there has been great change.”
The St Vincent’s clinic is a joint initiative of the St Vincent de Paul Society, St Vincent’s hospital, the Kirketon Road Centre and the City of Sydney, with a weekly clinic running out of Ozanam Learning Centre in Woolloomooloo.
Smith has said that the success of the clinic was due to it having different services working collaboratively together.
She has called for the model to be replicated across the state.
A trial programme delivering mobile vaccinations to people without homes is currently underway in South Australia. If it’s successful, this and the St Vincent’s model could provide a framework to increasing vaccination rates amongst people without homes across the country,
Labor’s spokesperson for homelessness, Jason Clare, told The Guardian that St Vincent’s was doing a “fantastic job” but he was concerned that the government did not have adequate oversight of the issue more broadly.
“The Morrison government doesn’t have a clue what’s going on at the moment,” Clare said.
“We asked them how many homeless Australians have been vaccinated in a Senate estimates hearing and they threw up their hands and said they just didn’t know.
“It’s essential that homeless Australians get the chance to get vaccinated. Homeless Australians are likely to die 30 years before other Australians. This is an incredibly vulnerable group of Aussies and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect them from this deadly virus.”
The Australian Immunisation Register does not include personal information like an individuals housing status so this data is difficult to manage however it is being looked into, according to a government spokesperson.
“State and territory governments have advised that they will lead implementation of strategies for vaccinating vulnerable populations, including those experiencing homelessness,” the spokesperson said.
“State and territory governments are leveraging their existing channels for reaching out to vaccinate people in vulnerable populations.”
People experiencing homelessness, sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation are eligible for vaccines, which can be accessed through community clinics, GPs, commonwealth vaccination clinics, community pharmacies, Aboriginal community-controlled health services and state and territory clinics.
Many have spoken on the opportunity that the pandemic provides in being able to address and meet the long term health needs of people without homes. The long-term benefits of solving the homelessness crisis would far outweigh the short-term economic costs of supplying people with accommodation and allow these people better access to mental health services – something that greatly contributes to rough sleeping.
Although last year’s experiences do not indicate that this is high on the list of priorities for the government, it’s possible that this time around could be different as people without homes once again return to national attention through vaccination drives.
Australia has currently given a single dose of the vaccine to over half the population above the age of 16. Currently, state governments are vaccinating at a rate of 2.4 million doses per week.
At the current rate of vaccination, we are likely to hit 80 per cent fully vaccinated by mid-late November.