Virus concerns for homeless, as services stretched

• Neil Foggo says the prevalence of drugs and alcohol makes the homeless community susceptible to Coronavirus spreading rapidly. Photo by Steve Grant.

OVERWHELMED charities are struggling to create a co-ordinated strategy to manage the heightened risk Fremantle’s homeless community faces from Coronavirus.

Already the impact of the pandemic is being keenly felt in the sector, with St Patrick’s Community Support Centre losing volunteers and having to cut some services offered by allied organisations, while its food supplies have been significantly impacted.

“St Pat’s has always been grateful for our strong volunteer base, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic our volunteer base has halved and is dropping daily, understandably as volunteers are required to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” CEO Michael Piu told the Herald.

“While we are continuing to deliver good outcomes for clients, these are challenging circumstances and the impact on our community is being felt at all levels.

“We continue to provide key services including meals, food and emergency relief, and health services at this point in time.

“Food supplies have been significantly impacted, however we are overwhelmed by the generosity of the community who have responded to our appeals for help.

“At present we have a particular need for donations of non-perishable food.”

The centre has introduced a number of measures to try and protect clients, staff and volunteers, including take-away meals, and services by appointment only.

Mr Piu said while homeless people weren’t the highest risk group for bringing the virus into the community, they were at a far higher risk of becoming infected.

“If infected, self-quarantine will be another challenge for those sleeping rough or in shared accommodation.”

He said sustainable housing and support mechanisms to get people off the streets was an “urgent priority”.

Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt told the Herald the council was trying to help.

“The City of Fremantle has been liaising with St Pats and others in the not-for-profit sector as to how we potentially use latent capacity in our hostels and restaurants to provide safe food and accommodation for the most vulnerable in our community,” Dr Pettitt said.

“The Department of Communities are … responsible for the management of homeless and we understand they are working with peak organisations like WACOSS and Shelter WA to identify and assist people that are particularly vulnerable at this time.”

Mr Piu said while St Pats was well aware of the economic uncertainty many people were facing, “we need support in the form of food and financial donations, volunteer support to work behind the scenes, and ultimately, community backing.

“This will help us support those most vulnerable in the community in real need who may not have other means of support at this very challenging time.”

Community services minister and Fremantle MP Simone McGurk said she was very conscious of groups in the community more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Many people experiencing or at risk of homelessness have chronic health and mental health issues. Due to their circumstances, they can also be challenging to engage with on an ongoing basis, and are unable to take social distancing measures.

“The department of communities recognises this and has established a taskforce to address homelessness and consider the immediate risks faced by not only people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, but the sector that supports them. This includes consideration of health advice and what additional resources are needed to respond to COVID-19.

“The department of communities is also working with other government agencies, including the health department, department of finance and department of the premier and cabinet, and community sector organisations such as WACOSS to develop a response to COVID-19.

“The primary focus of this work is supporting the most vulnerable members of our community – particularly rough sleepers. But the state government is also aware that workers who assist homeless people also need to be protected while they do this important work.

“State government contract managers have been asked to work with community service providers, to support them in maintaining critical services to vulnerable people and putting safety checks in place so they are complying with health advice. A number of services have advised the Department that they have taken steps to put additional precautions in place.”

NEIL FOGGO has been living in the sand dunes at South Beach for the past eight months and says while others in the homeless community initially laughed over Coronavirus because of the inconceivable desire to hoard toilet paper, the mood changed this week.

He said there were arguments as anxious people lined up to get a take-away sandwich, worried about whether charities would be able to maintain their food supplies.

Mr Foggo said the prevalence of drugs – particularly methamphetamine – and alcohol in the homeless community made them particularly susceptible to infection.

“They are sharing every day – needles and cigarettes,” he said.

“Often someone will have a bit of meth but no needle, so they come up and ask if you’ve got a cleanie, that’s what they call a clean needle.

“I say ‘no, I’ve only got one that I’ve used’, and I tell them that I have Hep C, but that doesn’t stop them, they just say ‘I’ll give you some if you let me use it’.”

He says so far the supply of meth hasn’t been affected by the crisis.

On his way to speak to the Herald, Mr Foggo passed a homeless woman he knows who offered to share some wine with him. He says if it wasn’t for the interview, he would have taken up her offer and they would have shared the bottle.

Like many other homeless people he also smokes “bumpers” made from the scraps of tobacco left in cigarettes discarded on the ground. He believes these could also prove a dangerous place to pick up an infection from the wider community.

He might be marginalised, but Mr Foggo was pretty switched on to the lack of targeted assistance for homeless people in the Morrison government’s $80 billion Coronavirus stimulus package. The best it contains is a tax credit that’s now extended to not-for-profits.

“I was watching everyone else doing the self-isolation and what’s about for the homeless and it seems to be that once you live on the streets you become invisible,” Mr Foggo said.

He also believes many who might try and access additional Centrelink payments will probably shoot them up their arm anyway.

Adding to Mr Foggo’s worries about the virus and its impact, it’s been a time of personal sadness as last week one of his sisters in Sydney died and he says he’s been feeling a bit lost since then.

by STEVE GRANT

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