The historically low rate of Newstart is making Australia’s homelessness problem worse, a charity says, with the number of people on the dole forced to seek help from shelters and support services soaring over five years.
As advocates use Homelessness Week to ramp up calls for a national homelessness strategy, national figures show that 54,000 people who sought help in 2017-18 were on Newstart.
The figure represents a 57% increase from five years earlier in 2012-13, when there were 34,000 people on Newstart who presented at a homelessness agency over the 12 months.
“If we don’t address levels of things like Newstart, and the consequences of living on such low income levels, then we’re only going to see the problems continue to deteriorate,” Sue Cattermole, the St Vincent de Paul Society’s Victorian chief executive, told Guardian Australia.
After the election, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, appointed a new minister for homelessness, Luke Howarth, to his ministry. Howarth has already clashed with homelessness groups after saying it was important to put a “positive spin” on the issue.
Morrison, meanwhile, has remained steadfast in his opposition to an increase to the $277.85-a-week payment, despite support from Labor, the Greens, John Howard, the Business Council and the nation’s welfare groups.
Figures collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also show a surge in those aged 55 and over accessing homelessness services, particularly among women.
Berry McSherry is a former company chief executive who found herself homeless when her training company went bust in 2015.
McSherry, who lives in the Victorian town of Kilmore, said she was unable to secure a lease after being forced to sell her home to pay off her debts.
“There was already a stigma attached to me personally, ‘Oh, I’ve heard Australian Training College has gone bankrupt’, so a lot of rumours in a small country town,” the 59-year-old said.
“The reality was my youngest daughter, who was 10, at the time, and I were about to sleep in our car, until somebody heard about my dilemma. A local invited me and my daughter to just share a room and stay in her house until I found something.”
McSherry stayed for six weeks before being helped into a home with the help of Vinnies. But her difficulties didn’t end there.
Despite having three degrees, employment was elusive, particularly full-time work. McSherry got some contract work – mostly hours away in Melbourne – but she was otherwise relying on food banks, as well as Newstart, rent assistance and family payments.
“In the three and half years before I got into this current position, I applied for 1,279 jobs,” McSherry said. “I could not get a full-time job. I could not even get a full-time job working at Coles or Aldi or Woolworths as a checkout chick.”
It took three and half years for McSherry to get her current role at a bus company. “What’s really scary for me is, am I going to be in exactly the same position in February, when my contract ends here,” she said. “You know, what am I going to do?
“The future scares me to be really honest.”
This week, Homelessness Australia published new analysis showing federal spending on social housing and homelessness has fallen in real terms since 2014-15.
The shortfall is $82m, and will grow to $96m next year, the peak body said.
Jenny Smith, the chair of Homelessness Australia, said the organisation wanted more spending on social housing as well as a national plan that engaged all three levels of government.
Howarth said the government understood “having a roof over your head is crucial to the welfare of all Australians”.
“Just one person forced into homelessness is one too many which is why this government has made tackling the issue a priority,” he said.
“The government is contributing more than $6 billion a year in funding for housing and homelessness to support states and territories in their important work.
The government is yet to commit to such a plan but last month Howarth raised eyebrows when he said his priority would be building more emergency accommodation.
“It’s quite a ridiculous statement,” said Doug Herrington, who has spent years wading through Australia’s complex web of homelessness and housing support systems.
“Emergency housing, as much as it’s a good thing, it’s nothing stable, it doesn’t give much hope.”
One night in 2011, Herrington, 52, went to bed and woke up three months later. A fire had torn through the Brisbane house where he had been couch surfing, leaving him with third-degree burns from the waist up.
When he got out of hospital, he was moved into a supported accommodation complex for people experiencing homelessness.
After regaining the strength to walk and do things for himself, Herrington was told by his doctors to move to Melbourne to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren. Last year, he inquired about getting housing in Victoria.
“Their words to me were in order to access the system, you have to first become homeless,” Herrington said.
So he was forced into the private market, where he said he pays about 70% of his disability support pension in rent. People are considered to be in housing stress if more than 30% of their income goes to rent.
Both Herrington and McSherry would not have been considered people who slept rough, a measure Howarth pointed to last month when he suggested there was “good news” around homelessness statistics. While homelessness rose 14% in the five years to 2016, the increase in rough sleeping was smaller.
“I think rough sleepers is the visible part of homelessness, but it is only a small proportion of the bigger issue,” Cattermole said.
“We need government to show leadership on the whole issue of homelessness, not just on the issue of rough sleepers,” she said.
“And what we need, I think, we need a national strategy.”
This article first appeared in https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/07/the-future-scares-me-low-newstart-rate-is-making-homelessness-worse-charity-says
Wed 7 Aug 2019 04.00 AEST