By Oliver Milman
The City of Melbourne will offer homeless people free passes to the movies and swimming pools amid fears that the summer heat will prove to be a “silent killer” of those unable to escape it.
The city’s heatwave and homeless strategy sets out measures to help homeless people during the expected heatwave, delivered by six homelessness groups including the Salvation Army and Youth Projects.
Free swimming and locker passes to five pools in central Melbourne will be made available for homeless people until 31 March. Complimentary movie tickets will be distributed on days of extreme heat, and homeless centres will open after hours to provide cooler conditions.
The scheme will also advise those in temporary accommodation about how to cope with hot days, as well as provide maps of shaded areas such as parks, libraries and visitor centres.
There are an estimated 1,343 homeless people in the City of Melbourne, and 142 sleep rough in the CBD. Victoria has about 22,000 homeless people.
An estimated 167 people died due to the extreme heat that baked Victoria during January last year; homeless people are considered particularly at risk.
A City of Melbourne spokeswoman said: “Extreme heat is a silent killer that takes its highest toll on our most vulnerable, such as those who are homeless. We want to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have access to a range of respite options during the day and at night, as well as important heat health information.”
She added that the movie passes would provide “cool, safe, welcoming, inclusive environments”.
Danny Nepean, a 35-year-old man who was homeless for much of the past 12 years, said summer was a particularly hard time.
“The options of where to go are very limited,” he told Guardian Australia. “There are water fountains outside the art gallery that you want to put your legs in to cool off, but security move you on. The beach isn’t an option because you carry all your possessions with you and you worry you’ll lose them if you leave them to go for a swim.
“There are a hell of a lot of older gentlemen on the street and they are really susceptible to the heat. They generally sit in KFC and McDonald’s waiting for the heat to go and then try to find somewhere to sleep.
“Ironically, the outreach services come out at night to provide water, rather than during the day. I think this plan isn’t perfect – permanent housing is the answer really, but it’s better than nothing.”
Jenny Smith, chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, said the strategy was a “great initiative” but that homelessness was a year-round issue.
“Cooling down in a cinema or pool will provide some relief for people on the margins but let’s not be distracted from a long-term solution to homelessness, which involves affordable housing,” she said.
“When you have people living on couches and caravans, hot weather demonstrates why these are unsatisfactory conditions.”
Smith said homelessness groups were anxiously waiting to see if the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness would be extended. The funding program, a joint initiative between the federal government and the states, runs out in June.
The Victorian government has called on the federal Coalition to commit to the partnership’s extension, after pre-Christmas cuts by the federal government to homeless advocacy groups.
“We are just hanging on here to see if the money will come through,” Smith said. “It’s not a good sign that they’ve already cut money to homeless services.”
Heather Holst, chief executive of Homeground, an organisation that provides direct support to homeless people, said she was waiting to see whether its programs would have to be cut if the funding was not extended.
“It’s a nervous time,” she said. “We need to look at the bigger picture. The main game is expanding affordable housing so that people don’t have to sleep rough.”
The Department of Social Services was contacted for comment.