It’s the smell that hits you first at the Coburg Motor Inn; the $110-a-night motel room has the rank miasma of antiquated sweat, grime, and desperation.
When The Age and the Herald visited last week, there were rips in the carpet and couch, a chair was mottled with stains and the view from the motel room window was of car wrecks and a mattress propped against the fence.
It’s at this squalid motel that the day after he was released on bail from Melbourne Remand Centre.
Just 12 days later, a 44-year-old man from Gowanbrae was found dead at the motel. Neither death is being treated as suspicious and police are preparing reports for the Coroner.
But Lazenby’s death at the Coburg Motor Inn – where homeless and people released on bail are routinely referred by agencies – has put a spotlight on the dire lack of suitable emergency accommodation for the state’s most marginalised citizens.
Across Victoria, there are only 522 government-funded crisis beds.
To make up the shortfall in accommodation, government-funded homelessness services and the justice system are forced to purchase rooms for their clients in low-end motels and private rooming houses.
Robert Mark Old, who has been homeless for three months, prefers to live on Melbourne’s streets than stay in crisis accommodation.
Old says he was referred to Coburg Motor Inn by VincentCare for a few days in March.
I left after one night – it was a bloody disgrace, Old said. The rooms were filthy and the staircase was used as a toilet by the residents, who were all affected by drugs and alcohol. It was not safe at all. I just want a little place to myself. It’s asking a lot I know. If all else fails I’ll just stick to the streets.
Meanwhile, residents who live near the Coburg Motor Inn have raised concerns with Moreland City Council and local federal MP Peter Khalil about a constant stream of police and emergency services attending to crises at the motel.
The residents, who asked not to be named, said a man staying at the motel had set fire to a ute on the street and their children had been frightened by encounters with guests.
It is time for action on this dangerous establishment before the people staying there or those living nearby are put at further risk. My fellow residents and I want vulnerable people to be supported properly – not dumped in the too hard basket up the road from us. The current arrangement only serves the owner of the motel, no one else.
Khalil said there were serious safety issues about the Coburg Motor Inn, which reflected the broader challenge of a lack of accommodation and wrap-around services for the homeless.
He said the new federal Labor government hoped to work with the Victorian government to provide more crisis accommodation, such as the new facility at the former Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre, which offers short-term accommodation to men leaving prison who would otherwise be homeless.
The owner of the Coburg Motor Inn, Ian Pan, said a lot of people stayed at the motel after being released from jail and some had a history of violence.
Pan said he occasionally felt unsafe but tried to keep things under control by keeping a watchful eye on guests and calling the police when necessary.
He and his staff tried to keep the motel clean, he said, but guests sometimes deliberately messed up the rooms and the damage could not be immediately repaired.
They smash things in the room, doors, lights, everything that can be damaged is damaged to wipe their anger sometimes.
Pan said there were very few motels left that were prepared to take in guests who were homeless or had come out of prison.
We talked to some organisations, they say they need this kind of service. We could change into a normal motel, do some renovations, and stop taking them, but these people would be homeless on the street, all of them.
Moreland City Council said it had visited the Coburg Motor Inn this year in response to complaints and conducted a routine general inspection.
As a result of these inspections, council officers have sought the cooperation of the operators to make improvements to the standard of the facilities, a council spokesperson said.
The Coburg Motor Inn has been notorious for years.
In 2019, it was ranked among the most unsafe, lowest quality options for emergency accommodation along with the now closed StayInn Motel in Coburg North and Nico’s Backpackers, according to the report
Three years ago, the Northern and Western Homelessness Networks, which represents 50 homelessness and family violence organisations in Melbourne, as a form of emergency housing.
But some services that are part of the Northern and Western Homelessness Networks continue to refer clients to the Coburg Motor Inn because, they say, they have no other choice.
Launch Housing says it is concerned about safety and conditions at Coburg Motor Inn and only refers clients there as a last resort.
Unfortunately this is an example of the impossible decisions we have to make to put a roof over someone’s head, a spokesperson said.
Launch Housing hadn’t referred families, women escaping family violence or young people to the Coburg Motor Inn for a number of years due to the conditions of the accommodation.
We predominantly refer highly complex single clients who have no other options and have often been banned from other private accommodation, the Launch Housing spokesperson said.
Launch Housing does not consider $110 a night at Coburg Motor Inn as representing value for money, but unfortunately this is the current reality of the private market in the absence of appropriate crisis accommodation stock in Melbourne. There is a significant need for greater investment in more appropriate, safe crisis accommodation in Melbourne, especially for single people.
VincentCare, The Salvation Army and Unison, who are also part of the Northern and Western Homelessness Networks, refused to comment.
The Victorian government said it was developing a more coordinated approach to the use of motels for family violence emergency accommodation.
Homes Victoria takes seriously reports of unsafe conditions, and when made aware of non-compliance has issued directives for homelessness agencies not to refer people to particular accommodation until issues are rectified, a government spokesperson said.
When Belell Khodr was released on bail this month after being charged with three counts of arson, he says he was referred to the Coburg Motor Inn by the Court Integrated Services Program, which provides accused people with emergency accommodation.
It was like a horror story, it didn’t seem right at all but I couldn’t really complain because it was part of my bail conditions, Khodr says.
People would knock on your door asking for cigarettes, drugs, anything they can get their hands on. There was a lot of commotion, a lot of screaming and yelling and a lot of alcohol and drug use in that place. It was a bit scary there. I didn’t want to leave my room.
He said the couple who ran the Coburg Motor Inn were nice people but didn’t have enough staff.
One night he said a female police officer, called to the motel over a disturbance in a nearby room, knocked on his door to see if he was OK. I couldn’t wait until I got out of there.
Khodr says he will forever be grateful to his support worker, who eventually got him into Launch Housing crisis accommodation, where he feels safe and has access to support services. They help you and give you food as well.
Vaughan Winther, the CEO of the Australian Community Support Organisation, which works with people in the justice system, said the Coburg Motor Inn was symbolic of many unsafe places where people were placed after leaving prison.
It will get closed down because Nick Cave’s son died there, but I can tell you now, there are a lot of people who die [in such places] that don’t get any media.
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