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Homelessness and emergency management: Victorian perspectives

Disasters and emergencies such as bushfires, floods and heatwaves affect all Australians, no matter what their background or status. A new VCOSS report, Easing the crisis: Reducing risks for people experiencing homelessness in disasters and emergency events, states that people who are homeless – some of our most disadvantaged and marginalised community members – are at significantly greater risk from disasters and emergencies.

People are not vulnerable to disasters only because they are experiencing homelessness, but because they are often invisible in existing emergency planning, preparation and responses. Vulnerability is an outcome of the interaction of the socially structured nature of existing disaster approaches interacting with an individual’s circumstances.[1]

The VCOSS report examines the adverse effects of emergencies on people who experience, or are at risk of, homelessness. Drawing on research and consultations with Victorian housing and homelessness organisations, it explores experiences of homelessness before, during and after an emergency event; the ways emergency events can lead to homelessness; and provides ideas for specific, targeted interventions to better address the needs of people who are facing homelessness in emergency planning.

Homelessness is typically not a choice people willingly make, and is more than simply lacking shelter. Family violence is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Australia, with 25 per cent of people who seek accommodation at specialist homelessness services doing so because of family violence. A further 15 per cent seek help because of financial difficulties, while 12 per cent are in housing crisis, and another 10 per cent have been living in inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions.[2] In Victoria, children comprise about one third of people attending homelessness services.[3]

The report states that understanding the causes of people’s homelessness, the diversity of the homeless population, and listening to people’s stories can help emergency management organisations meet the needs of people who face homelessness in an emergency. Education can increase emergency services’ connections with people experiencing homelessness and the organisations that support them.

BANNER Sleeping rough

Addressing homelessness before emergency events is the best protection for people who are marginalised and highly disadvantaged. Image: Steven Lilley.

Easing the crisis: Reducing risks for people experiencing homelessness in disasters and emergency events encourages the emergency management sector to work closely with housing and homelessness organisations to both understand and address the needs of people experiencing homelessness in emergency planning, and to support housing and homelessness organsiations to build their own resilience to enable support of homeless people in the event of an emergency.

The report also addresses issues that impact emergency management, including surge capacity for housing and homelessness organisations as well as urgent housing needs. It provides background information and recommendations on emergency responses that catering for the needs of people experiencing homelessness across areas such as transport, access to possessions and pets, keeping families together, family violence support, and psychological first aid, as well as the importance of trauma-informed relief.

Addressing homelessness before emergency events is the best protection for people who are marginalised and highly disadvantaged, using strategies such as intervening early to sustain tenancies, rapidly re-housing people who become homeless to prevent them entering a homelessness cycle, and providing permanent supportive housing for those who have experienced chronic homelessness. Further work is needed to protect people experiencing homelessness in emergencies.

This will can be achieved through working with, supporting and resourcing housing and homelessness organisations to prepare for emergencies and build their resilience in the face of disasters, as well as prepare them to attend to the particular needs of their clients and minimize further trauma.

[1] Every, D, Disaster risk education, community connections and emergency communication with people who are homeless, CQUniversity, Adelaide, 2015
[2] Mission Australia, What is homelessness?, accessed at , 2015.
[3] M Kirkman, et al., Does camping count? Children’s experiences of homelessness, The Salvation Army, 2009.