Governments housed the homeless in hotels during lockdowns – but now many are sleeping rough

Under the canopy of a hotel in Sydney’s Kings Cross, Chris Thomson is awakened from a cold night’s sleep by staff settling in to dine al fresco.

His loot and two splayed cardboard boxes are a far cry from the hotel suite he stayed in for nine months at the start of the pandemic.

It’s also not the life he envisioned for himself when he was growing up.

“I absolutely did not want to live on the streets of La Croix,” he said.

“I didn’t raise my hand for that one.”

Mr Thomson – Taz to his friends – is one of 1,500 homeless people in New South Wales who have been offered emergency accommodation during lockdowns in 2020.

Chris Thomson says hotel accommodation provided him with more stability at the start of the pandemic.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

“I got used to sleeping inside again, and yeah, it was awesome,” he said.

“During the first week, because I wasn’t feeling well, I slept on the floor watching TV.

The former trucker had two homes named after him over a decade ago.

Then he committed a violent crime at a drinking party and landed in jail.

Everything went from there.

A man with a beanie and jacket sitting at an outdoor table, looking at the camera
Chris Thomson had two houses named after him before his life took a turn.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

What a difference a pandemic makes

When the pandemic first hit and lockdowns were required, things suddenly changed for people sleeping rough or without stable housing.

To help them self-isolate and maintain public health orders, several states have made accommodation available in vacant hotels, while others have provided support for those at risk of becoming homeless.

As the closures were lifted, governments then had to figure out where all those people would go.

In New South Wales, where current Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet wants to halve homelessness by 2025, the government has invested $122 million in the Together Home programme.

This initiative has helped people move from emergency accommodation to long-term stable housing.

Victoria’s From Homelessness to a Home program has similar goals and aims to provide 1,845 households with stable housing and support programs.

“We’ve seen how we can practically cut rough sleep in half during the pandemic,” said Jenny Smith, chair of Homelessness Australia.

A woman in an alley with short blonde hair and a jacket
Jenny Smith says governments have shown they can be successful in reducing the number of visible homeless people.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

In Melbourne, data shows that emergency accommodation provided at the start of the pandemic reduced the number of people sleeping rough, but that trend has since reversed.

Some 280 people were sleeping rough before the pandemic in the city of Melbourne, the council area that covers the CBD and its immediate surroundings.

Emergency accommodation reduced this number to 90 people at the start of 2021, but by May 2021 it was back up to 127.

Adelaide had a similar experience.

At the start of the pandemic, 158 people were sleeping rough in the city center. This number was reduced to 114 in February 2021, but by March 2022 it was back to 155.

Nearly 93,000 people nationwide relied on government-backed homeless services in March 2022. Many other homeless people were not counted in this number.

Ms Smith said the experience of housing people and then finding them elsewhere has shown governments that there is no suitable accommodation for people with significant complexities in their lives.

Mr. Thomson would fit that description.

Since leaving the hotel, he has lost social housing and he no longer feels safe in the one that currently bears his name.

“They’ve had a lot of break-ins and stuff like that, I feel a lot safer here,” he said.

Two people walk past a sleeping homeless man in a booty on the floor
Chris Thomson says he fell through the cracks again after leaving the hotel.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

As someone struggling with addiction and mental health issues, Mr. Thomson needs help from a range of support services.

He would also like to be part of a community of people who help each other.

“We need to get back that sense of community and that sense of belonging,” he said.

“We were just unlucky”

For Sam Grenfell, Victoria’s program was life-changing after being homeless during the pandemic.

“I felt like a failure. I really did it. I didn’t know what to do,” the 51-year-old said.

In January 2021, she and her 12-year-old son left an unsafe family home in regional Victoria.

They had nowhere to go.

“[You] get that so-called homeless image that they’re either on drugs [users] or … that type of person. But we are not. We’re just ordinary people who just weren’t lucky.”

A woman with dark red hair standing outside a motel
Sam Grenfell says access to safe housing has had a huge positive effect.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

Sam and his son stayed in a family shelter, then in a series of low-cost motels. In one off the highway on the outskirts of town, they were too scared to leave their room.

“There were seedy characters walking around. We had a lady walking up and down outside our window screaming that she had to kill someone. So, yeah, it was just very uncomfortable.”

Eventually, Sam was placed in a unit as part of the pandemic’s From Homelessness to a Home program. After nearly a year in secure housing, she is now moving to permanent accommodation in another part of the state.

She thinks that without help to escape homelessness during the pandemic, everything could have turned out very differently.

“It brought me back to life. It really does,” she said.

A woman with dark red hair holding a moving box
Restored, Sam Grenfell and his son move into a new permanent home.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

Victoria recently extended funding for most of the program, but only for one year.

Housing Minister Richard Wynne believes the key to the plan’s success is that it provides more than just a roof over it. It also offers significant support for day-to-day living.

“You need wraparound services,” Mr. Wynne said.

“You can give someone a home, but if they don’t have the life skills, if they’re not connected to the community and the community supports, whether it’s drugs and ‘alcohol, [or] mental health…the chances of them making a full recovery are much less.”

When we want we can

Ms Smith believes the pandemic response shows what governments can do – when the political will is there.

“When we didn’t want people to become homeless, we provided housing,” she said.

“We showed we can do it. Let’s keep going.”

According to Mr. Thomson, it is a sad situation when a rich country like Australia fails a large part of society.

“How many people take time out of the day to not just wonder how someone got here like me or even care?” he said.

A man in a blue shirt and a camouflage cap playing the piano
Chris Thomson plays music by ear and considers it a gift he can give to others who do it hard.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)

Mr Thomson said that although the “cushion of stability” given to him during the pandemic helped for a time, he again fell through the cracks.

Ultimately, he wants to use his experience to help others get back on their feet, but to do that, he too needs support.

“I would be happy with a home that I felt safe in, in a world that had that sense of community,” he said.