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Respecting dignity during public housing lockdown



The public housing lockdown announcement on Saturday took me straight back to 2007, when I was working at the base of the Flemington public housing estates, running programs with children and young people. The kids could all speak multiple languages and introduced me, a Northeast Victoria raised AFL hardliner, to soccer. Many of those kids lived three or so to a room, and spent as much time as possible outside on the oval, or in the nearby parks. They adored particular teachers at the local school and their homework club leaders, who would help them with their studies with respect to their dreams and aspirations, which they would tell me all about. They didn’t, along with many of the older residents I worked with in other programs, think much of the police.

Flemington tower (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

It is important that we pay particular attention to the nature of how these lockdowns unfold and how they are handled, as they affect some of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of our communities in the state.

This decision to lockdown particular public housing towers over the weekend by the Victorian Government has clearly been made swiftly and with the intention to benefit public health — both the health of tenants of these buildings and the health of all of us in Victoria. Many of us, of course including residents of the towers, understand the exceptional response that COVID-19 has required, and that these lockdowns form a part of the response. But when the situation has meant that people must, unless there are exceptional personal or medical grounds, remain house-bound for at least five days, we must be careful in the way we go about caring for the health of people.

Like me, Richard Wynne MP — our Victorian Minister for Housing, has also spent time working with the communities who live in the Flemington and North Melbourne public housing towers. I am grateful that a number of decision makers throughout government have knowledge of and direct experience working with residents of the affected communities.

This means that the government knows, at some level, that residents are resilient and creative, but also that many struggle with a range of complex issues. They know that the lockdown could put many people in a particularly difficult situation if they do not have secure employment, or if they have complex health needs, or if they suffer from mental illness, or if they have an acquired brain injury. They know that it will be particularly difficult for those who not have access to technologies that allow them to stay connected to friends, family, services or education. They know that many residences at these addresses are without a balcony or outside area, are small in size, and that many windows do not open. They know that to be house-bound there could be difficult or even a traumatic experience for both adults and children.

This knowledge does show in the government’s stated response regarding their implementation of support for residents. There is enormous effort by multiple government departments working at present, which have now brought on the expertise of various community and social service organisations to meet the needs of these 3000 plus people. But with the scale and timing of an operation like this, how and who care is being rolled out by is important — and there are many voices from within the towers who are expressing frustration because their ability to look after themselves and their families has been taken away. There is also apparent frustration with processes, or lack thereof at this stage of such a quick turn-around operation, that government departments, the police, and community and social services have been attempting to deliver support through.


'During this time when nine sites across three public housing estates have been completely locked down in two Melbourne suburbs, it is of vital importance that each one of the 3,000 plus residents are treated with respect in regards to their inherent dignity.'


The mode of working in this operation is an emergency management one — it follows a public health directive and is being rolled out of the State Control Centre. The markers of this approach is apparent, especially in the use of law enforcement agencies — at the beginning of the lockdown 500 law enforcement personnel were put on per shift. This was a ratio of one law enforcement officer to six residents at the towers, all numbers being accurate. This approach has apparently shifted in response to the distress and anxiety this caused to residents, but there is still a very visible police presence. Australian Services Union, whose members come from the social services sector amongst others, have ‘condemned the law and order response put in place at the North Melbourne and Flemington high rises, versus a health and social services response’ and have asked for numerous changes covering short and long term responses to the situation.

Damien Stock, CEO of Inner Melbourne Community Legal who have a longstanding relationship with VincentCare Victoria and their Homelessness Resource Centre situated in North Melbourne stated recently that they were ‘concerned that order be applied proportionately and flexibly for people who have underlying needs’. There are many formal and informal relationships within these public housing estates, and to navigate this complexity with respect and flexibility requires considerable skill and knowledge. The experiences of many residents can mean that relationships with law enforcement agencies are complex and layered in histories — quite often negative.

A different and effective alternative approach is possible. Local community organisations, school and Church groups, and social services who are connected to the local area and understand the complexities are well placed to assist in an emergency operation like this and to participate in a community-oriented approach. Already they have moved into action, demonstrating the good will and readiness to assist in responding to the challenges of this COVID era, that could be utilised and shift the orientation in how this lockdown has been rolled out —  local Catholic parishes and schools are reaching out to their families who have been locked down in these towers to offer support. Social service agencies are calling their clients who live in the towers to connect and maintain supports. Various agencies have begun to provide services coordination at each tower.

During this time when nine sites across three public housing estates have been completely locked down in two Melbourne suburbs, it is of vital importance that each one of the 3,000 plus residents are treated with respect in regards to their inherent dignity. 



Joshua LourenszJosh Lourensz is Executive Director of CSSV, the peak body for Catholic social services in Victoria. He was profoundly influenced by attending a ‘Living Laudato Si’ workshop last year in Bukidnon, put on by the Jesuit Conference of the Asia Pacific. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Main image: Flemington tower (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)


Topic tags: Joshua Lourensz, COVID-19, Melbourne housing towers, Flemington, North Melbourne, lockdown



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Existing comments

but not with police doing the evil lockdown

stuart lawrence | 07 July 2020  

Josh, your experience working with children and young people from the Flemington public housing estates is now showing its importance. Your empathetic writing at this particular time gives ES readers an insight into the talents and strengths of the residents. It was wonderful to see on a TV program in the last couple of days the number of young people involved in volunteering their talents to assist. These are most difficult days for Victoria, and indeed Australia, and the residents of the housing towers are our future. Let's all look out for them.

Pam | 08 July 2020  

Unfortunately, the coronavirus is no respecter of human dignity or the tenets of Christian social justice and in fact preys on the most vulnerable in society. The response to control it by locking down the whole of Melbourne which has demonstrated a selfish disregard for essential impositions designed to protect the sick and elderly amongst us is to be applauded.

john frawley | 08 July 2020  

While this is an informative article, we must not forget to mention key community organisations like AMSSA centre and East African Women's Foundation who have been inundated with distress calls from residents in these towers. The doors of the mosque (AMSSA) were opened to the wider community to distribute culturally appropriate and adequate fresh food for the residents. Initial packages were of poor quality. I have been on the ground volunteering, like so many others. We have stepped in where the government and government agencies have not. The Andrews' government did not consult community organisations before this "hard lockdown". We are currently in consultation with the relevant agencies to assist and run a smooth operation. It has been traumatic for residents and disheartening for volunteers. The wider community have shown support but we need recognition. Many news articles have not mentioned the efforts of AMSSA centre. We must amplify their voices because they are working incredibly hard.

Najma Sambul | 08 July 2020  

Thank you for this wonderful account. Congratulations Josh on your work. You make good points. Points that if this was not such an emergency - with life and death choices - would make sense. Dan Andrews faced a decision last week. The health experts told him – you have infected towers. In the heart of the city. People will die. He knows this pandemic punishes the slow to act. So the consistent and courageous Andrews – leadership unparalleled in Australia’s history – does something momentous. He shuts down the towers. He acts. Without policy or precedent. [Is John Curtin turning the boats with the 7th division troops from Burma to Australia in 1942 the closest parallel in our history? Not quite that, but it’s a big decision by Andrews.] He is torn apart - by new and old media. The opposition. His own party. But other accounts emerge. The ABC has an account of a frontline nurse. She writes a story of what she sees - of hope, goodwill, respect and yes dignity in difficulty. Of people thankful. Of courageous actions. Of people with a “she’ll be right” attitude. The core of the nurses observations – the residents were not seething, angry victims. Grateful and understanding. [The nurse says none in her towers refused testing. Media reported many refused to open doors.] And Andrews – just pursuing the one big question. What does it take to save my people? The Premier saved lives. People were safe in their homes. Almost all were tested. A miracle! There is some hope of a future after this.

John | 12 July 2020  

Reprinting an excerpt from Professor Janet McCalman's Facebook post on this crisis. It reflects somewhat on comments here. The agency that implements the initial implementation of emergency orders is the trained emergency force, the police. It is terrible that bad policing in Flemington in the past has damaged the authority of this completely legal public health intervention. As journalists more than the rest of us should know from experience: emergencies are always messy, people always make mistakes, unplanned things happen, and in the tangled web of a complex situation, something always has to give and that can have much wider consequences. But there WAS detailed planning, but the execution is always difficult, especially when it involves civilians. The scale of the operation was huge and donations flooded in. Sounds like a bushfire emergency doesn't it. I suggest that all journalists do some serious reading about past disasters, epidemics and public health, starting with 'Pale Rider', by Laura Spinney, and Richard Evans' magisterial 'Death in Hamburg' and spend the lockdown reflecting on their capacity, as in New Zealand or the UK or the US, to make things worse. Of course people on the ground made mistakes, of course the shock was profound, of course it's upsetting when you see cops everywhere. But no-one that I know of was bashed, no-one died, the food and personal supplies were sorted by day three, only the reclusive refused testing, and tragically, the testing results absolutely justified the intervention. There was a lot of COVID! IF there had been warning, people would have escaped, just as they are doing all over Melbourne, each thinking they could 'get away with it' and already they are taking virus interstate. The enemy is the virus and the only thing we have in defence is good government working on scientific advice, and not caving in to fear that the electors and the media will not like it. It's time to respect expertise.

John Kilner | 12 July 2020  

John Kilner's comments are OUTSTANDING. He totally and concisely covers every aspect astutely. I do worry about reports from the media - they so INFLAME situations - and seem to thoroughly 'enjoy stirring the pot'! Thank you John. Common Sense to the rescue!

Wendy Rae | 14 July 2020  

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