Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

17 December 2019

New research shows that dangerously low Centrelink payments are driving people into poverty and putting them at risk of homelessness, and the government must do more, Sophie Trevitt writes.

New research examining the intersection between the social security system and public housing has highlighted that failings of both systems entrench poverty, put tenancies at risk, and result in social security recipients facing homelessness.

The dangerously low rate of some Centrelink payments and the nation-wide affordable housing crisis are well documented. A recent Senate inquiry into the adequacy of the Newstart Allowance received hundreds of submissions that testified to the impossible task of trying to pay rent, buy groceries, look after children, pay bills, and look for employment on less than $40 a day.

Something has to give – and when that something is rent, arrears start to accumulate, and eventually, a Notice to Vacate is issued. In the end, people are left without anywhere to live.

The problem is structural. The Anglicare Rental Snapshot published this year identified that there were only two properties on the private rental market in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) that were considered affordable to someone on Newstart. This means that for the vast majority of social security recipients, public housing is the only affordable housing option.

More on this: Homelessness and poverty in Australia

In the ACT, where the research was undertaken, public housing waiting lists range from 151 days – if you’re lucky enough to get a rare spot on the ‘priority waiting list’ – to 1,079 days if you are on the standard waiting list.

And those numbers are on the low end. In the Northern Territory, people can wait for over eight years for a public housing property. This leaves some social security recipients with no option but to live in overcrowded conditions, couch surf, or sleep in their cars or in public places.

The research project – Homeward Bound – is the culmination of the experiences of 567 clients who sought legal assistance about housing or Centrelink from Canberra Community Law over a 12 month period.

While the first stage of the project examined the experiences of clients based in the ACT, the lessons and recommendations of the project are applicable nationally.

The first and most obvious recommendation is that the rate of Newstart is simply too low. Social security is hardly a ‘safety net’ if it forces recipients to live below the poverty line. It is common sense, as well as shown by extensive research, that it is counterproductive to force people into poverty if you want them working.

It’s difficult to find a job as it is, but it’s even harder when you don’t have enough food to eat, you’re worrying about where to sleep, or you’re unsure how you’re going to get the kids to school.

Second, there is a large group of vulnerable people who are missing out on payments altogether. People with disabilities and mental illnesses often faced multiple problems using the system – both with accessing Centrelink and to securing appropriate, accessible public housing.

Successive governments have tightened the criteria for the Disability Support Pension over the last two decades, making it harder for people to access it. This has forced people with disabilities onto Newstart.

More on this: Is Newstart slowly killing people?

Homeward Bound examined numerous examples of people with permanent disabilities that prevent them from working trying to subsist on Newstart. In some cases, their disabilities prevented them from fulfilling the mutual obligation requirements necessary to receive their Newstart Allowance.

This results in penalties being issued against them, their Newstart being cut off, and being left with no income at all. As a result, they can’t pay rent, meals are skipped, and people are placed in incredibly precarious, dangerous situations.

Along with payments, a major challenge for people with disabilities is a lack of disability-accessible housing.

One example was wheelchair users being forced to live in houses with corridors too narrow for them because nothing else was available.

One woman had a condition that required her to use a wheelchair some, but not all, of the time. When she was able to move around unassisted, she could access all rooms of her home. When she relied on her wheelchair, she was forced to stay at a friend’s house, and leave her children unsupervised at home. Another client, an elderly man, was unable to fit his wheelchair through the door into his bathroom.

These case studies were not exceptional. They highlight the lack of autonomy and freedom afforded to people with disabilities when the two ‘safety nets’ of housing and Centrelink fail to provide people with a decent standard of living.

Third, the harsh, often unlawful, and punitive practice of both recovering debts from already financially-vulnerable people has had catastrophic effects on people’s lives. Homeward Bound found social security recipients were regularly intimidated into paying off debts that they may not have owed, sacrificing rent for debt repayments, which puts their tenancies at risk.

Further, some especially vulnerable people faced debt recovery action. One such group was women fleeing domestic violence. Homeward Bound found numerous examples of women who were lumped with debts from public housing for damage to the property that was caused by a violent ex-partner.

Other women were presented Centrelink debts for periods of time when they were forced to flee the home, leaving their children in the father’s care. Centrelink would later demand back parental payments for the time when they did not have custody of the children.

These practices make it extraordinarily hard for people to get back on their feet after significant trauma in their lives.

Homeward Bound examined many more intersections between Centrelink, homelessness, and housing, and showed how much is fundamentally wrong with Australia’s social safety net. One in which people on Centrelink live below the poverty line, and are forced to navigate a public housing system that leaves them waiting years for somewhere to live.

The report makes a number of recommendations to both Territory and Federal governments, but there is one that stands out above all. The federal government must urgently raise the rates of Newstart Allowance and Rent Assistance, so that people can afford to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

‘Homeward Bound – Social Security and Homelessness’ is a major research project of the National Social Security Network and Canberra Community Law funded by the Australian Institute of Administrative Law.

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