Housing department accused of negligence as tower residents left exposed

Katie Johnson

Residents of Carlton’s housing estate say they were left vulnerable to COVID-19 once again by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) with multiple elevators in the towers left out of service for months.

The towers at 480 and 510 Lygon St were declared Tier 2 exposure sites in mid-August after three residents at 480 Lygon tested positive to the virus and COVID fragments were found in the waste water, sending entire building floors into lockdown.   

Resident and mother of two Shewit Kahsay was abruptly put into isolation after her entire building level was locked down on August 16.

“We just got a call today saying that we can’t go outside for two weeks, I was shocked,” Ms Kashay said.

“It’s so difficult to be cramped in the space with two kids.”

Since the outbreak, more than 400 residents have been tested which has kept the spread under control.

But despite the success of the contract tracing, residents and community leaders say the outbreak could have been prevented.

Resident Cory Memery said the DFFH had been “negligent” by forcing dozens of residents to cram into one lift after leaving multiple lifts out of order for months.

“In multiple buildings there has only been one lift working for months, and with so many floors residents weren’t able to socially distance when they were in there,” Mr Memery said.

“There’s absolutely negligence involved and DFFH should have had the foresight that if an outbreak occurred this would get out of hand.”

“Residents have had enough of being ignored.”

Another resident Mahir Ibrahim said that not only were the lifts left “under maintenance” despite calls from residents, there was also a lack of QR codes in the buildings.

“There should have been measures to prevent this, there were seven to eight people in the lift at one time and they weren’t being properly cleaned,” Mr Ibrahim said.

“There’s also no QR codes in some of the buildings despite multiple visitors including delivery drivers, nurses and maintenance staff who all move around the estate.”

Drummond Street Services family services manager Amuna Abdella said that residents often felt like they had “no voice” when it came to health and safety issues like broken lifts.

“One of my clients who has a disability had to climb nine levels of stairs with shopping because of the broken lifts and the department hasn’t been accountable,” Ms Abdella said.


Someone said to me that they felt like they were treated like animals.


To support residents through the outbreak, Amuna and her team have been working day and night to provide mental health services, food distribution and family violence support.

Collectively, the team speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Urdu, Russian, Malay, and almost all of the languages of the Horn of Africa – allowing them to communicate with residents of all backgrounds.

Ms Abdella said that her team had been “working every weekend” to make sure that residents received the support they needed.

“We have a priority response team now to make sure people who need help aren’t put on a waiting list and are allocated right away,” Ms Abdella said.

“For people who aren’t coping with the pandemic or are struggling with family violence or mental illness they are given a single session right away so we can hold the space for them.”

“Before 12pm today I had four clients come through the doors who were allocated right away – so we have been creative with the way we deliver our services.”

Despite all of their efforts, Ms Abdella said that the continued lockdowns had a cumulative effect on the mental health of residents.

“As service providers and as community members, we have been left with a sense of helplessness,” Ms Abdella said.

“Women with multiple kids are having panic attacks, poverty is rising, the streets are empty and dead and people are really struggling.”

For many residents, the memory of last year’s hard lockdowns still looms over their heads.

In July 2020, 28 cases were detected across Carlton’s five housing towers, sparking concerns they would face the same hard lockdown as North Melbourne and Flemington.

But Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre community development manager Elle Morrell said that compared to last year the outbreak response had been “much more organised”.

“There’s better engagement with residents and a meeting was held within a few days of the outbreak,” Ms Morrell said.

“Having Cohealth there has been great and they’ve played a really important role in supporting residents and encouraging them to get vaccinated.”

Ms Morrell also said that the learning centre was using the experience of last year to better support residents.

“It’s a lot less stressful than last year, we’re supporting residents with troubleshooting and helping people who are in isolation who didn’t expect it,” Ms Morrell said.

“For instance, maybe someone’s fridge is broken and they have a large family and are worrying about keeping the milk fresh during two weeks of lockdown – we come in and assuage some of that anxiety.”

A spokesperson for Cohealth – which manages the pop-up vaccination clinic at Carlton – said that tower residents had been “receptive” to the vaccination program since it opened in June.

“It’s been heartening to see the care that the public housing residents have shown for each other, and the broader community, by following health advice and sharing vaccine information among themselves,” the spokesperson said.

“Residents have been receptive to the vaccination program because they know they know that the high-density nature of their housing, with multiple shared areas makes them more vulnerable to contracting COVID.”

A DFFH spokesperson said that lifts at 480 Lygon Street were now fully operational after a significant upgrade of the lift was complted ahead of schedule on Friday 27 August 2021.

We regularly undertake extensive maintenance work to ensure the lifts continue to be safe,
the spokesperson said.

“The lift maintenance work at 480 Lygon Street started before the current lockdown and were accelerated to ensure it was safe and operational as soon as possible.


Onsite teams are continuing to providing a wide range of pandemic related support, including access to culturally appropriate food, essential supplies and medicines.


The spokesperson also said that increased cleaning continues to be undertaken throughout the buildings, including regular cleaning of contact points in lifts and other shared spaces.

The Victorian Government has also invested more than $155 million for coronavirus preparation and prevention measures in the housing towers, including food and community services •

Caption: Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre community development manager Elle Morell with resident Cory Memery. Photography by John Tadigiri

Caption: (Left to right) Drummond Street Services family services team Amuna Abdella, Nadia Hamid, Helen Rimington and Sara Nega have been working day and night to support residents.

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