Many organisations are wondering how to re-set their ways of working so as to meet the needs of their clients. Here Dr Evelyne Tadros, Mission Australia State Leader NSW Metro, describes how that organisation is dealing with COVID-19 and its consequences for a very vulnerable group of people.
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Evelyne Tadros writes:
The ripple effect of this public health crisis has been far-reaching, and there is no doubt that COVID-19 has affected the way we work and serve people in need as a national community services organisation. We certainly don’t underestimate the multiple challenges arising due to the virus and the need for isolation of the people we serve. On the other hand, we also see some new opportunities to make a long-term difference to some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
While COVID-19 has impacted us all in some way, it has impacted some more than others. People experiencing homelessness may have nowhere to take shelter and self-isolate, domestic and family violence and child protection issues can be hidden, and some families are trying to home school without adequate access to technology and resources.
We were faced with many challenges to solve, such as how residential services with shared bathrooms, kitchenettes and laundry facilities can be best managed to mitigate an outbreak if it was to occur. We also needed to address how we move our staff to work remotely where that is possible and reasonable and still provide a high-quality service to our clients. We asked ourselves: “How do we best recalibrate so we can stay connected to individuals, groups and the community as part of ensuring we continue to deliver essential services to those who need our support? How do we make sure our staff are safe and healthy and manage the flurry of questions coming through about COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, isolation and management? What about the fall-out of so many losing their jobs or facing reduced working hours – won’t this place Mission Australia in a position where we need to ramp up our service delivery in areas of need?”
We engaged in several taskforces, such as a specific Inner City taskforce led by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, which engaged other key government and non-government agencies. The main priority was to support rough sleepers to access temporary safe accommodation and the second priority was the de-concentration of larger residential homelessness facilities to manage social distancing and isolation requirements. This taskforce was put into place as many rough sleepers have chronic health conditions such as heart problems, respiratory issues and diabetes, which makes them more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. Because people who are homeless don’t have a safe place to call home, they’re also unable to self-isolate or practice physical distancing to limit their risk of contracting the illness.
Additional government funding
The Department of Communities and Justice is providing additional funding for this temporary accommodation in hotels to help people to self-isolate and decrease the risk of community transmission among people experiencing homelessness. People living in crisis accommodation where there is an increased risk for the spread of COVID-19 have also been given an opportunity to move into hotel accommodation.
The numbers of people living in congregate care have also been reduced, with many now in transitional accommodation or long-term accommodation to mitigate the risks associated with an outbreak.
The taskforce initiative also included the provision of food and support services to clients who move into temporary or alternate accommodation options. Agencies such as ours continue to provide wraparound support services while these clients are living in the temporary accommodation.
It was pleasing to see the NSW Government’s rapid investment of funds to support those who have been rough sleeping or sleeping in crisis accommodation. While COVID-19 was the catalyst for this effective yet temporary solution, we remain hopeful that once the immediate threat of the virus ends, that people sleeping rough or those in crisis accommodation aren’t sent back to the streets.
Standing at the precipice
We are standing at the precipice of an incredible opportunity to work collaboratively to provide and maintain long-term housing options for the 116,000 people who are homeless in Australia (37,692 of whom are in NSW), and the many more who are at risk of homelessness – both now, and in post-COVID-19 Australia. We very much see this as an opportunity for government investment in social and affordable housing that keeps people safe and well. This has positive economic and social outcomes, creating more jobs and will help ensure we can reduce homelessness over the longer term, so people have a safe foundation.
To assist the expected number of people who will be accommodated in hotels, a wide range of further longer-term housing options are currently being. Further work will be undertaken to link people in need to the appropriate housing option and ensuring supply where possible, such as through social housing, transitional housing, private rentals, private rental assistance, assisted living or aged care.
Reinforcing the COVID-19 restrictions in some of our residential services is also proving challenging, with some clients, tenants and residents not having the full cognitive capacity to understand COVID-19 and the necessary restrictions and self-isolation requirements. Helpfully, we have received support from NSW Police and Public Health to gently and collaboratively reinforce the importance of practicing these requirements to this group of people.
Declining mental wellbeing
We have seen a decrease in the mental wellbeing of clients as the restrictions and lockdowns set in, increasing isolation for many who were already vulnerable and lonely. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, we are also starting to see increases in depression, anxiety, paranoia and suicidal ideations.
In response, we are increasing and varying the ways we support and connect with our most vulnerable clients. Our staff are offering simple but effective initiatives such as providing basic supply packs to ensure people have access to the items they need, so they can continue to put food on the table. We have also distributed tailored care packs which include activities to keep one’s mind occupied, including activities for kids over the school holidays, as well as general information on how to stay safe and well and access community supports during this time.
Increased use of digital platforms
Our staff have upped our use of digital platforms while working remotely including increasing telehealth options, access to clients and groups through the use of video conferencing platforms and social media, while of course adhering to client confidentiality requirements.
All clients have widely appreciated the offer of alternative counselling or group work options through digital means or phone calls, with staff reporting an increase in the length of time spent with each individual when compared to face-to-face. While it is encouraging to know we are able to reach and support these clients at this time, this may also be a reflection of the impact that isolation is having on people’s mental health, rather than directly due to the use of digital platforms.
Of course, there is always more demand that our charity and other community services organisations could be meeting, particularly at this time. So we will continue to persevere and innovate to work with the people we serve in the most effective and compassionate of ways.
In a post-COVID-19 Australia, I’m sure this will see us all return to a new kind of normal – where we are armed with new skills and experiences. These new ways of doing things are bound to change the way we work with clients and our colleagues forever. I know that if we effectively reconfigure and adapt to this rapidly changing environment and see these changes as a welcome opportunity to improve how we serve people, we will all be better off in the long-term.
Dr Evelyne Tadros is Mission Australia State Leader NSW Metro. Mission Australia has needed to purchase many unforeseen items, including personal protective equipment, IT equipment and resources like laptops. To support this, you can donate the cost of your weekly commute through missionaustralia.com.au or by phoning 1800 88 88 68