A LEADING UnitingCare agency in Melbourne’s east has stepped in to stop more than 140 children and adults living at a 50 bed rooming house in Oakleigh from becoming homeless after its owner closed the facility.
The 50 bed property – originally an aged care facility – was transformed by its owners into an emergency housing facility for up to 45 families and five singles/couples to stay short term.
Rooms once housing a single older resident now accommodate a family of three or four.
Families sleep in one double bed and on thin mattresses on the floors, paying $260 to $320 per week rent, around 64 per cent of a Centrelink single parent payment.
Many of the families chose to have a microwave, fridge and electric frypan in their bedroom, or rely on cheap take-away food, rather than leave their children unsupervised to cook alongside dozens of others in the shared kitchen.
Just days before Easter, vulnerable residents of the rooming house were dealt a further blow when its owners announced its closure and served tenants with notices to vacate.
General manager of homelessness services at UnitingCare Harrison, Mark Dixon, said that – with a lack of vacancies in crisis, transitional housing or refuge accommodation across Melbourne – this particular rooming house was often used as a last resort by homelessness support services assisting families.
“On occasions, we were forced to house families there while we urgently worked to move them into more appropriate housing options,” Mr Dixon said.
“Unfortunately, some other support services simply paid two weeks rent for the families placed there and then, as the family was now technically out of their region of origin, disengaged support.”
Mr Dixon said rooming houses across Victoria have become the new homelessness ‘safety net’ for singles, couples and – most worryingly – families with children.
“Many of the single males who live in rooming houses have significant mental health, drug and alcohol problems, some have prior prison histories. In my opinion this presents a risk to young children as no safety checks are performed by the owners,” Mr Dixon said.
“Try to picture it from the perspective of a single mother with a couple of children, late at night, when the only sleepover worker is in their bedroom downstairs. Your children can’t sleep because of the sounds of loud music or couples arguing coming from various rooms.
“Someone knocks on your door demanding cigarettes or money. You are scared to let your children play anywhere but your bedroom, because you don’t know who could be wandering the hallways or inviting them into other residents’ rooms, where there is drinking and drug taking happening.
“Your sleep is regularly disturbed by the sound of the fire alarm going off by accident numerous times each week – to the point where residents don’t bother to respond anymore.
“You learn to keep a low profile, not complaining to either the manager or other residents because that is how you are going to survive.
“This is your family’s home for who knows how long because the alternative is the streets,” said Mr Dixon.
Since the closure of this rooming house, support workers at UnitingCare Harrison have collaborated with the Tenants Union, the Department of Human Services (Eastern & Southern) and several other housing providers to find an immediate response to the plight of its residents.
UnitingCare Harrison’s Jenny Tomlin works with families at risk of homelessness. She said the trauma experienced by children placed in such an environment is particularly worrying.
“This rooming house was the last resort for them, before having to live on the streets. It’s going to be hard for them to find somewhere else to stay at such short notice,” Ms Tomlinson said.
“Once their Notice to Vacate comes into effect, local police will be forced to evict them and the locks will be changed.”