Calls to reopen public housing for community programs

Spencer Fowler Steen

Community organisations in Kensington and North Melbourne are calling on the government to reopen public housing so they can run vital programs for vulnerable residents.

Public housing towers across Melbourne, including those in North Melbourne and Kensington, have been shut to the public since March last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Normally, Kensington Neighbourhood House (KNH) runs a Study Support program at the community hub on the ground floor of the Kensington public housing estate providing free essential support and educational assistance to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The program employs 26 volunteers who provide 49 school-aged children and 18 families with homework assistance twice a week and utilises a trilingual Somali community member to effectively communicate with families.

KNH community engagement specialist Rebecca Smith said because most of the children attending the program lived in overcrowded housing, the program provided a much-needed quiet space for schoolwork.

“Last year was a very difficult year for everybody, but extremely difficult for families living in public housing,” she said.

“This year is a year of recovery, it’s difficult when we won’t have easy access to space for family support.”

North West City News understands various other community groups in Kensington and North Melbourne have been affected by the decision to close the public housing towers.

These include North Melbourne Language and Learning which is seeking to teach English, Kensington Arabic School which usually runs Arabic classes, and residents at 9 Pampas St who are seeking to use a room there for functions.

The Chinese Friendship Association (CFA) in Kensington is another community group which has been unable to carry out its normal functions.

Ms Smith said CFA was a group of 40 to 60 Chinese seniors who lived in the Kensington estate and used a space there for regular gatherings, helping lessen social isolation and foster community ties.

Usually, KNH also runs its Healthy Living and Learning program at the Kensington public housing in partnership with Unison and Cohealth, providing weekly lunches for up to 60 people.

But since the housing towers have shut, the program has had to move to take away only.

Ms Smith said she was also “really frustrated” because another KNH-run craft program for seniors at 94 Ormond St, Threading Stories, had to stop.

“It’s really sad actually because it [normally] lessens social isolation,” she said.

Federal Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, and State Greens MP Ellen Sandell have both written to the Minister for Housing urging the government to reopen public housing to allow programs to run.

Mr Bandt said KNH had provided the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) with a COVID-19 safe plan, addressing all the criteria listed in the DFFH Access to Community Facilities Guidelines and Access to Cooler Places Guidelines, but to no avail.

“Given the importance of the program to the local community, and their willingness to ensure that the COVID-safe plan is implemented and adhered to, I urge you to allow the program to operate out of the Hub this term subject, of course, to any relevant COVID restrictions,” Mr Bandt wrote in February.

While the government has provided no specific timeline to reopening public housing in Melbourne, a government spokesperson said it was currently working with community organisations to look at reopening safely.

“The closure of community facilities during the pandemic has been a regrettable but essential measure to protect tenants and the broader community from coronavirus,” the spokesperson said.

“We’re pleased alternative arrangements have been found to allow many of these programs to continue and we’ll continue to work with local program providers to look at how these facilities can reopen in COVIDSafe way.”

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