#HW2022 | Climate, Homelessness, Housing & Health

Homelessness Week is a national week to raise awareness of people experiencing homelessness, the issues they face, and the action needed to end homelessness not just manage it.

On Thursday, 4 August 2022 we examined how climate change, as the single biggest health threat facing humanity, is having a devastating impact on housing. Looming floods, fire and drought not only can destroy homes but can determine where we can build. Throughout the day we heard from a distinguished array of guests. In the first session was Professor Petra Tschakert is Professor of Geography and Global Futures at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts & Social Inquiry and Professor Lisa Wood is from the Institute for Health Research, University of Notre Dame.

The second session included Grace Dudley from Kimberley Community Legal Services, David Jones Chief Sustainability Officer at the Department of Communities and Dr Paul Torzillo is a Physician and Director of Healthabitat.

The presentations were followed by a facilitated workshop to discuss how the sector is preparing for climate change and climate events, where current priorities lie and and what barriers hinder improvement.

Structural Vulnerability

Professor Tschakert started by giving the audience an update on the climate science front. Running through key definitions we were presented with what structural vulnerability means in the talk about climate change.

“Three degree and possibly a five-point five-degree warmer world.”

For people sleeping rough and experiencing housing precarity they are extremely structurally vulnerable people. They are at risk to hazards: air pollution, heatwaves, cold snaps, flooding, storms and fires. They are at risk to exposure: from elements, from living in inadequate housing, and from sheltering in flood-prone areas. They are at risk to vulnerability: socioeconomic disadvantage, domestic violence, hosing insecurity, evictions, social isolation and stigmatisation. The impacts from these combined risks include: increased illness/morbidity, hyperthermia, food & water insecurity, substance abuse, infectious and vector-borne diseases.

Our Climate

After establishing the importance of structural vulnerability Professor Tschakert then outlined the climate outlook for WA. Due to climate change, extreme heat is expected to increase in Western Australia.

“For parts of WA we have to prepare ourselves for a three degree and possibly a five-point five-degree warmer world,” Professor Tschakert said.

With an increase in temperatures people experiencing homelessness have increased vulnerability to climate change and climate events particularly in parts of the state where there is lack of or poor-quality public housing.

So, what do we do about it?

Adaptation Pathways

Professor Tschakert proposes a series of adaptation pathways between now, 2030 and 2040. Many positive pivot points can be implemented to protect vulnerable people with government intervention. Some things which we need to think about now include: adequate housing, retrofitting, accessible shelters and standards for climate-proofing.

In conclusion a Thermal Inequality Map of the City of Joondalup was shown. It shows how on a hot day in February it is not equally hot across the suburbs. Professor Tschakert argues these maps should capture all homelessness hotspots.

“Where would people go?”

“We need to overlay them with greenness indices, so we understand where there is sufficient canopy cover we should overlay that with location specific vulnerability indices … and we need to locate where the existing social housing and other forms of subsided housing are.

“Then we think about strategic cooling and heating refuges. Where would people go? Can we open public spaces above a certain temperature threshold? Can we offer 24-hour services, so people don’t die on the street?”

By thinking about these actions now we can reduce higher levels of illness and further vulnerability for people experiencing homelessness.

Watch the event here

Heat, Wet or Cold

Professor Lisa Wood is a tireless advocate for research being relevant and driving evidence-based responses to social issues. She is recognised nationally and internationally for her leadership in the homelessness and health field and leads a growing program of collaborative research and evidence led advocacy.

In her presentation she focussed on Climate and the Health of People Experiencing Homelessness highlighting how you cannot escape the heat, wet or cold.

Heat

In her case study Professor Wood highlighted the outcome for a person experiencing homelessness on a 44-degree November day in Sydney. There was an associated spike in people presenting to hospital emergency departments with heat stroke. Of the people presenting to St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, three were homeless. One man collapsed from cardiac arrest with a body temperature of 42-degrees. He spent a week in the intensive care unit.

There is proximal effect of heat on health such as an inability to safely store food and medicines. Some medications become less effective or no longer work at all like insulin.

Wet and Cold

There are both direct and proximal effects from cold and wet weather. An inability to shelter or keep warm or dry can lead to hypothermia, gangrene and respiratory infections. Frequenting communal spaces for safety and to find warmth, food and other services also increases the chances of both spreading and becoming infected with other winter respiratory illnesses. Staying warm and keeping clothing, bedding dry is a significant issue and may exacerbate poor health.

So, what do we do about it?

Interstate Examples

SA Housing Authority coordinates Code Red and Code Blue extreme weather responses across South Australia in partnership with other service providers When a Code Red or Code Blue response is activated, homelessness services will visit known rough sleeper locations to make people aware of the supports available to them.

In Sydney, at St Vincent’s Hospital they have a mandatory extreme heat protocol. It has standard guidelines for an assertive response to extreme heat events to reduce the impact on the health of people experiencing homelessness.

Locally

In what was a timely local response, Professor Wood pointed to the decision by St Patrick’s Community Support Centre to operate under special opening arrangements providing an overnight shelter during the Severe Weather Warning issued at the start of Homelessness Week. The Centre opened over three nights with 21 people including a mother and her eight-year-old son making use of the facility.

“There comes increasing unpredictability.”

In conclusion Professor Wood noted “how with climate change there comes increasing unpredictability, and this just further reinforces how little control or agency people experiencing homelessness have in their lives”.

“I really feel we want to fight to change that.”

Kimberley Social Housing

In the second session Grace Dudley shared the findings of ‘Stuck in the Heat: Lived Experience of Public Housing Tenants in the Kimberley.’

Grace outlined how through her work with Kimberley Community Legal Services they deal with tenancy issues relating to maintenance, repairs and requests. They also offer financial counselling and see problematic issues arising when people struggle with payment of power bills.

The main themes to come out of the report were:

  • Poor quality public housing, maintenance issues and overcrowding due to low housing stock impacts the ability of public housing tenants to effectively control the temperature and energy efficiency of their homes.
  • Public housing tenants in the Kimberley may experience energy poverty due to high energy prices and the use of inefficient cooling appliances.
  • Current Housing Authority cooling policy trends to reinforce the financial disadvantage experienced by many public housing tenants in the Kimberley.
  • Exposure to high internal house temperatures may harmfully impact a householders’ health and effect their ability to participate in their community.

Climate Action and Sustainability Team

David Jones is the Chief Sustainability Officer at the Department of Communities, and he outlined what the brand-new Climate Action and Sustainability Team does within the Department.

With over 36,000 public housing dwellings across WA there are plenty of challenges ahead. “We are preparing a Climate Action and Sustainability Strategy which will guide the whole agency,” David said. “That’s big. That’s challenging but it’s also enlightening. That’s going to apply to not only our homes but also our service delivery. It’s no good us putting in energy-efficient houses if we don’t walk the talk ourselves as an agency.”

Some of the aspects being considered by the Department of Communities include United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings, WA Climate Policy and meeting the whole-of-government reduction target in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 80 per cent.

There are challenges with differing climate zones throughout the entire state, and the Department realises differing zones need different approaches. “I was in Balgo three weeks ago and it was freezing,” David said. We can’t do one-size-fits-all in the Kimberleys. Mapping does help us focus on individual climate zones.”

Some of the work being done right now includes:

  • 500 solar PV systems being installed on public housing properties via Synergy.
  • 10,000 public housing dwellings being converted to being waterwise – fixture replacement and education change. Funded by Water Corporation.
  • Waterwise landscaping projects and guidelines.

Other aspects under considerations by David’s office are healthy homes, waste minimisation during construction, designs specifically for those living in the homes but with the ability to adapt to change.

Healthabitat

Dr Paul Torzillo is a Physician and Director of Healthabitat.

The majority of Healthhabitat’s work is called Housing for Health. This is an evidence-based methodology founded on the Healthy Living Practices aimed at improving health through the living environment. Professor Torzillo’s organisation predominantly works within remote Aboriginal communities.

“Health problems can be a driver to being homeless and being homeless can be a driver to health problems, so those people go around and around in a circle with their health getting worse and worse,” Dr Torzillo said.

“Homeless people have little access to primary care to manage their chronic health problems and this matters because in 2022 treating heart failure and treating high blood pressure and treating diabetes and using medications makes a difference. That’s called secondary prevention. There is huge high-quality data which shows that stops people dying from these diseases. So, if you cannot access health care or have anywhere to store medication you can’t keep it then you are not going to be able to access that secondary treatment. A lot of this increased death rate is preventable.

“Most homeless Aboriginal people move in with family … that puts further stress on the ‘health hardware’ in the house and it makes thermal control in housing more difficult.”

“Aboriginal housing at the moment can’t control temperature.”

“Health hardware” is a term first used by Dr Fred Hollows to describe the physical equipment needed to give people access to the health-giving services of housing. For example, to wash a young child the “health hardware” needed may include a water supply, pumps, tanks, pipes, tub and drainage pipes.

“Aboriginal housing at the moment can’t control temperature in a way that is going to prevent health damage for the occupants. When homeless people move into houses and increase the occupancy numbers then thermal control gets even harder and the stress on the health hardware in the homes gets even higher.

Existing Housing Stock

“Current housing is not going to do this and future housing, even improved models, is not going to protect these communities from increasing temperatures. And the problems about thermal control, energy supply for that, energy costs and their living circumstances is going to make living in these communities tougher and tougher. It is hard to see how they are going to survive.”

To read more about the Housing for Health – the Guide here.

Homelessness Week 2022 would not be possible without the support of our sponsors: Lotterywest, the WA Alliance to End Homelessness, Department of Communities, Fleetwood Australia, Uniting Church in the City and Beyond Bank.

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