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Community rejoices as government finally reopens public housing community spaces

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Spencer Fowler Steen

After being deprived of vital community spaces by the Victorian Government for more than two years, vulnerable public housing residents can finally attend support programs and cool rooms again after sustained pressure from several community leaders.

Community spaces in public housing across Melbourne including North Melbourne and Kensington have been shut since March 2020, a move the state government justified due to COVID public health directions despite many public spaces reopening to allow crowds back.

The spaces provide areas for residents living in cramped housing to socialise, learn and stay cool during summer.

The prolonged closure forced community program providers to find alternative solutions which were at times inaccessible, or strenuous for public housing residents.

But in response to questions from North West City News, a Department of Families, Fairness and Housing spokesperson confirmed in early April the rooms would reopen.

“All public housing community rooms and cooler places are set to be reopened by April 19,” the spokesperson said.

 “The programs that community groups run in these facilities are highly valued by the department and our public housing communities, and we look forward to having them back on site soon.”

While community spaces have been closed, cool rooms in public housing have also been shut forcing residents, many of whom are elderly, to sleep in stairwells and nearby parks to avoid the sweltering heat in summer, according to public housing residents and community leaders.

State MP for Melbourne Ellen Sandell, who has previously written multiple letters to the Minister for Housing calling for the community spaces to reopen to no avail, said public housing residents always seemed to be the “last people on the government’s radar.”

“We’re relieved that after pressure from my office and the community, the Department of Housing will finally reopen these community rooms,” Ms Sandell said.

“But it’s pretty telling that after pubs, restaurants and theatres have been open for months, public housing residents are only just now able to access their own facilities.

 

Why do public housing residents always seem to be the last people on the government’s radar?

 

Kensington Neighbourhood House (KNH) manager Rebecca Smith said the announcement meant KNH would be able to use the community spaces once again to run essential programs for vulnerable community members.

“This is great news, and a big relief,” she said.

“The community spaces haven’t been open since March 2020 and it has been really difficult to cater to community needs without them. We’ve needed to run our homework program at the neighbourhood house, which means splitting the program over two sites, it's less accessible for families and really crowded.”

Ms Smith said given how important study and literacy support was for children especially post-pandemic, KNH was excited to being able to operate closer to participant’s homes.

Erika Lodge is a community worker living at 94 Ormond St who founded a program called 78 Seniors which runs day trips for elderly public housing residents to get lunch and attend events.

“It’s great, terrific!” she said in response to the news.

“It means we can get in there and do some activities and bring it to the residents of the high-rise which is better still.”

“We’ll resume as soon as possible because you never know, they might close it again.”

The community space reopening will allow a suit of other programs to resume running.

These include North Melbourne Language and Learning which teaches 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 mitigate social isolation and foster community ties.

KNH will also be able to resume 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.

A Cohealth spokesperson said it was working with the support of the DFFH to ensure that the high-rise community had ongoing health and social support it needed.

“In preparation for the community spaces reopening, we are also helping community groups to develop COVID Safe plans and protocols so that they are prepared to safely resume community activities,” the spokesperson said.

After reopening, the community rooms will not require COVID marshals, intensive cleaning, and vaccine or QR code check in, unless the facility is accommodating 50 or more people.

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