Living on Welfare like Playing Grim Wheel of Fortune

What it’s like living without a roof over your head

October 26, 2019

By the banks of the Yarra, in the well-heeled suburb of Kew in Melbourne’s east, tucked away behind bushes and scrub, is a two-man tent. Inside the tent lives a couple and their entire worldly possessions — a small carry-on suitcase and a weather-beaten back-pack full of paints, paint brushes and small canvases.

Locals using the nearby track for their daily run or cycle, intently listening to whatever is streaming through their AirPods, would be unaware that Sharon and Leroy have set up a home in the bushes a few steps away from the track.

Driven away from their home in regional Victoria by family violence and alcohol problems, the young couple left the small country town they had lived in for most of their lives and headed to Melbourne. Without money or an income, apart from the Newstart allowance, they applied for public housing.

“When I was a kid my family had a lot of problems with alcohol and violence, so I went to live with my grandma. When she died two years ago I had nowhere else to go, so me and my partner, Leroy, came to Melbourne to look for work and a place to live.”

Two years later, without jobs, Sharon says they are still on the public housing waiting list.

“We’ve applied for heaps of jobs and I want to go and do a TAFE course, but I don’t know where to start…. if you don’t have a fixed address how can you fill in application forms?”

A single person on the Newstart allowance receives just under $280 per week and can be eligible for up to $69 per week rent assistance. As a couple, Sharon and Leroy receive less money: the rate drops to $252 per week per person, with lower rent assistance up to a maximum of $65 per week for a couple. Currently, the poverty line in Australia is calculated at $433 per week for a single person, putting people on Newstart at least $150 below the poverty line.

“The cheapest accommodation we can get costs about $60 a night and that’s for a pretty feral, dirty place…we can’t afford it anyway. We live in our tent that no one even knows is there…it’s off the track behind some bushes…it’s comfortable enough. “

Sharon and Leroy sit for a few hours a week outside the shops in High Street, Kew, chatting to passersby and hoping to sell one of their canvas paintings. Occasionally, someone will buy them some sushi rolls or fruit from the fruit shop they sit near. Sometimes locals buy them new paint supplies.

“Lots of people look the other way, or don’t want to know about us. It’s really nice to see how many people do stop and chat…it makes me feel hopeful…it’s good to know that some people care”, Sharon says.

Federal Government claims that Newstart is a transitional payment; a temporary measure to supplement people financially while they are short-term unemployed, is not borne out in statistics. A report released this week by Anglicare Australia shows the average time for a person remaining on Newstart is three to five years. The report, which includes the Jobs Availability Snapshot, shows that the number of long-term employed people has increased steadily from 13 per cent in 2009 to 23 per cent in 2016. The report concludes that “In the face of the stark evidence that there are not enough suitable jobs, and that people are not being properly supported by employment services, we cannot continue to punish people for systemic failures.”

Jeremy Poxon, of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, advocates for the rights and dignity of unemployed workers and pensioners. He hears stories daily from people who are struggling to find work and forced into homelessness because the Newstart allowance doesn’t cover basic living expenses.

He says that the plight of the unemployed has “rocketed into the public consciousness” in a way he’s never seen before. “Statistically, it’s never been harder to secure full- time work…(the) government says Newstart is meant to be a temporary payment.. but most people are on Newstart for about three years. The government uses the excuse that we’re on the brink of recession to not increase it, but economists continue to reveal that we could stimulate the economy by increasing Newstart… an increase could save us from falling into recession”.

Jeremy knows what it’s like to live on Newstart — he’s been there. People living on Newstart are “playing a grim ‘wheel of fortune’ every week… there are set things that you need, but each week you spin the wheel and wherever it lands you have to sacrifice one of them, so it means sacrificing medication, or going to the doctor; some people have to leave their homes because they can’t pay rent.. In winter it may mean not being able to afford a power bill or having to leave the oven on to keep warm. These things are the reality of living on the lowest unemployment benefit in the OECD.”

Darren* a case manager at the Department of Justice in Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, says “it’s hard for people on Newstart…the cost of living has increased and people are not getting by. Housing is a constant issue”. Due to long waiting lists for public housing, many people on Newstart “end up couch surfing, or homeless” because they don’t have enough money to pay rent or to pay the bond to secure a rental property. He says that when it comes to unemployed people, the “focus should be on supporting them, not punishing them.”

Anglicare Australia’s Rental Affordability Snapshot report released this year, reveals a chronic shortage of affordable housing, finding a “dire crisis for those on the lowest incomes.” It found that “no properties in any capital city were affordable for a single person on Youth Allowance or Newstart. In fact, there were only two properties across the entire country that were affordable for people on these payments.”

“More than 142,500 Australians are on the waiting list for social housing, and half of those who were finally given a home in 2016–17 were already homeless. For those who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, over half spent more than three months on the waiting list. And for those not yet on the brink of homelessness, half spent more than two years on the waiting list.” The report predicts that the need for public housing will grow significantly by 2025: from 1.3 to 1.7 households.

Maiy Aziz, Director of Media and Communications at Anglicare Australia, says “Newstart is disgracefully low”, but that’s not the only problem. For the last 30 years the government has “moved away from supplying public housing and put most of its effort into the private rental market.” At the same time as the government has supplied less public housing, the cost of renting or buying a property has escalated to unaffordable levels, whilst Newstart has been frozen at the same rate for the same time period. This all combines to make a “perfect storm”, resulting in homelessness on a growing scale.

Maiy says many people claim the factors leading to homelessness are complicated, but she sees it differently. “The reason people are homeless is really simple: they can’t afford a place to live.” The only way to address issues such as mental health and drug issues, domestic violence and being unemployed, is to give people an affordable place to live. Once that issue is resolved, everything else can be addressed.

As people bustle past with their shopping bags bulging with fresh fruit, vegetables and fresh cut flowers from Toscano’s Quality Fruiterers, Sharon rolls up her canvas paintings and puts them away in her back-pack. It’s time to head home. “People are really kind around here,” she says with a gentle smile. “I’ll keep trying every day to get a place to live. I just want to live a normal life go to work…and be part of the community like everyone else.”

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