Living through the Pandemic

Through the eyes of a Specialist Homelessness Services support worker

COVID-19 has made for some tough adjustments for young people supported by Samaritans Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS). Members of the SHS team, Clare, Emma and Max, reflected on some of the challenges faced by people supported by the service throughout the pandemic.

“Whilst many of the young people we support have been eligible for increased payments which have improved their financial position, the social isolation has led to increased mental health struggles for many,” Clare said.

The team reflected on a young person supported by the service who has struggled with existing mental health challenges and a reliance on alcohol and other drugs.

“This particular young person struggles with change but had established a good routine with regular visits to the doctor and other supports. With these supports moving online, we have seen a decline in their mental health and a higher dependence on drugs, which are now more accessible with increased support payments,” Clare said.

Whilst refuge and crisis services remain full and SHS services remain in operation, there has been some reluctance from young people who require supports to seek help as well as a reduction in usual service referrals.

The SHS team has noticed a reduction in referrals, which is believed to be partly due to disruptions to usual referral pathways such as schools and job service providers- a result of changes in delivery structures of referring services.

“Reduced job seeker participation and engagement requirements and reduced face to face engagement with youth mental health services, temporary accommodation and community corrections services have resulted in a reduction of referrals in the past few months.

“With the resumption of face to face delivery of schools, Samaritans has already received an increase in new enquiries which is promising as formal referrals tend to be more successful than informal referrals. Many young people, while needing assistance, will often not instigate a call to SHS intake themselves,” Emma said.

Max described another young person whose mental health has also suffered as a consequence of job loss and social isolation from friends.

“The loss of shifts at work has meant a large amount of his income has gone and it has detrimentally affected his mental health. Relationships have been difficult to maintain, and the gains made before the pandemic have been lost. The idea of having to go back onto Centrelink is really difficult for this young person, but he feels it will be inevitable… it’s disheartening to see this in the young people we support,” Max said.

The team are supporting young people to see the increased payments as an opportunity to move forward and many are paying off debts or are able to pay bonds to secure a private rental for the first time.

The team have seen some proactive young people making advance payments to CentrePay (a free and voluntary Centrelink initiative to pay bills and expenses as regular deductions from Centrelink payments) meaning that in the future, their bills will be credited, or potentially have a zero payment required.

One young mum was able to purchase a pram required for her child who has a disability, rather than relying on AfterPay which would have been the only option for her in the past.

Temporary COVID-19 supplements have enabled some young people to more comfortably afford short-term accommodation, delaying the need to access services.

“Where young people are now able to afford hotels as temporary accommodation, they are reluctant to leave, having previously experienced homelessness and now able to afford a safe place for themselves to sleep the night,” Clare said.

Temporary accommodation providers have also been able to extend the amount of temporary accommodation to 5-7 days at a time, with easier criteria for extensions, rather than the usual 1-2 nights before a recipient is required to meet participation requirements, which often involve accessing support from SHS services such as Samaritans.

“There is a level of dependency on short-term solutions which we are having to challenge- we do have some concerns about what will happen to these young people when the money isn’t there… we don’t want these young people to return to rough sleeping or couch surfing,” Clare said.

Many young people have found themselves without a job or underemployed, putting further strain on their housing options.

“I support a couple who have both lost their jobs over the last few months- one is at risk of homelessness and the other is now homeless. Without an income, they have been unable to look at houses and the options of housing inspections have dramatically dropped. It has taken them three months to become stable enough to start looking for houses again and this has set them back quite far,” Max said.

For those who may have been still connected to family or friends, there has been an increased sense of isolation, as access has been limited, further reducing the young people’s circle of support- we have seen some of these positive relationship deteriorating for young people who have previously been reliant on these networks.

“When young people have faced significant relationship break downs in the past, it’s difficult for them to maintain relationships- and social isolation hasn’t helped those who we are working with to build up their circles of support.

“Young parents supported by the service have faced their own struggles in this way- without playgrounds, playgroup supports and friends, it’s been a really tough time. We expect that this may impact on parenting skills that are modelled in this environment,” Clare said.

“I support a young person who has a background of complex trauma. We were making great strides forward by creating connections with relevant services before COVID-19 restrictions came into play. It’s going to take us some time to rebuild that trust and rapport, but we are now slowly transitioning that person out of homelessness as we look to more stable accommodation options,” Max said.

“The reduction in referral numbers has been experienced by all SHS services to my knowledge, not only Samaritans SHS, however there is a general sense amongst providers of this being “the calm before the storm”,” Emma said.

It is expected that as services return to more face-to-face operations, SHS will see an increase in service demand.

“We consider the impact that additional time at home will have on relationships, and there has been some indication from new referrals that reflects this.

“There is concern about what demand may look like when COVID-19 supplements cease as some young people who are at home receive their own payments, with the household benefiting from these additional payments. This loss of payment will undoubtedly put additional strain on families,” Emma said.

The loss of jobs, distancing of community and reduced engagement is a concern for services whose focus is on building up these connections and supports.

As restrictions lift, this is one representation of a community of people who will require additional encouragement and support to find their feet again.
It’s a group that requires government commitment to find a way to transition all young people to safe and stable accommodation- after all, everybody deserves a home.