When Painter arrived at the Birches serviced apartments in East Melbourne, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’ve always said I just needed one person to treat me with a little bit of respect and I’ll flourish, and that’s what I’ve done here at Birches,” she said.
She is one of 2,000 rough sleepers in Victoria who were offered hotel accommodation during the pandemic – a program that has been heralded by service providers as extremely beneficial, and a possible road to ending rough sleeping once and for all.
Painter, who goes only by her last name, said she had been able to get off all drugs and, with the help of the hotel owner, Jenny Kerr, had begun painting and started to think about the future.
“Here I’m safe. S. A. F. E. It’s amazing what that one little thing will do, having a camera outside your room and knowing you can lock your doors.”
After Covid-19 was declared a pandemic the Victorian government announced it would double crisis funding to $6m to help homelessness agencies find temporary housing for those sleeping on the streets of Melbourne.
Unlike in other states, some Victorian rough sleepers were asked to contribute to the cost of their rooms, with some paying several hundred dollars a week.
The government promised the program would be extended until April when more than a thousand private properties would be subleased for rough sleepers. But two weeks ago Painter received a text message telling her the funding had run dry and she needed to call to discuss alternatives.
“It’s really scary, because not only will I end up back on the streets, I will lose everything I own, again,” she said through tears.
For 25 years, Painter was in an extremely violent and abusive relationship. She became addicted to ice and heroin. When she fled, she ended up on the streets where she faced further abuse and sexual assault.
“It’s just trauma, trauma, trauma and I’m trying to get past it. Knowing that I’m going to be homeless again in two weeks, it’s like, what’s the point?”
‘No one was telling us anything’
When the $150m Home for Homeless program was announced, the premier, Daniel Andrews, said in a press release the funding would “extend current hotel accommodation until at least April next year while these 2,000 Victorians are supported to access stable, long-term housing”.
But in a document distributed to support workers by the Department of Health and Human Services later in the year, seen by Guardian Australia, the message was less clear.
“There may be a perception that emergency accommodation (EA) is available for all people in EA until April 2021. However, this funding is part of a package designed to support people to exit hotel accommodation, not to sustain all tenancies until this date,” the letter reads.
A spokesperson for the government said the “$150 million From Homelessness to a Home program is designed to transition people out of hotels and into housing, not keep people in hotels in perpetuity.”
She said all those eligible for the 1,100 government subleased apartments would stay in hotels, but the remaining rough sleepers in hotels would have to be found alternative accommodation. She was unable to provide an exact number of those affected, but it is believed to be several hundred.
A number of social workers – who have been working with the Renters and Housing Union to raise concerns about the program – said they were told several weeks ago the funding had run out and their clients would have to leave the rooms.
They said the news was “devastating”.
“I’ve seen the people who have been there a few months have started to stabilise,” said Kal, who is a support worker in the hotels.
“[But] the whole time there was that constant anxiety, as a worker and I’m sure as clients, that they didn’t know what was going to happen next. No one was telling us anything.”
On Monday, the union staged a protest outside the Ibis hotel on King Street in the Melbourne CBD, where several dozen rough sleepers were set to be removed.
It’s understood some of them may have refused alternative housing.
‘Number one focus is surviving’
The government told the ABC on Sunday that “there are not hundreds of Victorians being exited from hotel accommodation into homelessness tomorrow”. Later it said in a statement that “options for people leaving temporary hotel accommodation can include rooming houses, private rental and emergency accommodation”.
The government confirmed that a mix of private, public and community rooming houses would be considered, but social workers say many private rooming houses are not good enough.
“The rooming houses are the worst of the worst … a lot of clients will use the word ‘crack den’ to describe them,” Kal said.
“They’re going to send these people backwards. These options are so bad that a lot of clients are choosing to go back to the street.”
The government has said that if rough sleepers declined rooming houses, their hotel accommodation would be terminated regardless.
“If appropriate alternative accommodation options are rejected, then homelessness organisations may not be able to continue to provide hotel accommodation,” a government spokeswoman told Guardian Australia.
She said homelessness organisations, rather than the government, “have a responsibility to ensure the accommodation they secure and offer people is appropriate and safe”.
It’s government policy not to send anyone into homelessness, but another social worker, who asked to remain nameless, said people would “definitely end up on the street”.
Jenny Smith, the chief executive of the Victorian Council to Homeless Persons, said the sector was grateful for the significant government investment in recent months, but it was unlikely to make a long-term difference.
“We don’t want to do the work of relocating people to places that are not as high quality as what we’ve been able to provide during Covid, but unfortunately, it’s back to business as usual for the majority of the 25,000 homeless people in Victoria,” she said.
Painter was offered a long-term room by her housing service but said it was totally inappropriate.
“It’s a dog box of a thing. I walked in and all I can smell on the walls was ice. And I have just literally given up a habit … I don’t need to go backwards,” she said.
Painter said she was terrified about what would happen.
“I’ve never really had much of a proper sleeping routine but I’ve been able to sleep every night here because I’m safe. I’m going to lose everything I’ve tried to build up for – because I can’t be safe anymore.”