Homeward Bound: Social Security and Homelessness


Our report ‘Homeward Bound: Social Security and Homelessness’ considers the relationship between social security, the public housing system and homelessness, drawing on the casework experience of our member centre Canberra Community Law.


Social security recipients experience the highest rates of poverty in Australia with over half of Newstart Allowance recipients living below the poverty line and most priced out of the private rental market. For many social security recipients, public housing is the only viable housing option for them.

Homeward Bound: Social Security and Homelessness makes recommendations for how the social security and public housing systems could be improved to reduce or prevent homelessness.

This research report’s findings rely on data collected by our member centre Canberra Community Law, which demonstrates the impact of social security and public housing on residents in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). These findings have broader application to other Australian jurisdictions, particularly given that social security is a responsibility of the Commonwealth Government.

Research findings

In relation to the public housing system, this research found that:

  • there was insufficient public housing for people who were unable to afford or secure other forms of housing
  • restrictive housing rules and eligibility criteria often prolonged homelessness or placed people at risk of homelessness
  • there was a lack of culturally appropriate housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, housing that met the needs of people with disabilities and housing that could accommodate pets
  • the way in which Housing ACT’s rental rebate and property maintenance program was administered often contributed to housing stress and placed tenancies at risk

This research also found that aspects of the social security increase, rather than decrease, the risk of homelessness. These include:

  • the extremely low rate of Centrelink payments
  • the tightening of eligibility requirements for Centrelink payments and increasing waiting periods
  • harsh, and in some cases unfounded, raising and recovery of Centrelink debts
  • the onerous and punitive system of mutual obligations leading to payment suspensions and penalties

Case studies

Rodney is a single male with complex and ongoing mental health issues which make it impossible for him to work. He relies on the Disability Support Pension to buy groceries, access public transport and meet his day to day needs, and cannot access the private rental market. Rodney has been living with his brother for the last 2 years. Due to increased tensions between the siblings, his brother has asked him to leave. Rodney has been classified as ‘High Needs’ by Housing ACT but has not yet been allocated a house. Rodney faces imminent homelessness, however, at the time of the publication of this report the average wait time on the High Needs waiting list is over 600 days.

Rachael is an Aboriginal single mother of three children. She has significant debts to Housing ACT for rental arrears accrued when she fled her violent ex-partner, and for rental repairs owing after her ex-partner caused significant damage to the property. Rachael’s expartner is currently in prison. Housing ACT has told Rachael that they will not accept a new housing application from her until she begins repaying the debts. Rachael faces imminent homelessness as she has been staying with her mother who is no longer able to house her. Rachael cannot afford private rent on her Centrelink income.

Loretta is a 59-year-old woman with several disabilities. Her mobility is extremely limited, and she cannot leave the house without assistance. She has a hearing impairment, a speech impediment and a heart condition all of which require medical interventions which cause Loretta to incur out of pocket expenses. She was initially placed on Sickness Allowance but that was cancelled after Centrelink determined that her condition was permanent. However, she has been found ineligible for Disability Support Pension. This has left Loretta without any income as she cannot work and cannot fulfil her mutual obligations on Newstart Allowance. She is now in rental arrears and fears losing her house.

Lucy is the victim of serious and sustained domestic violence including a recent incident. As a result, she is suffering from depression and anxiety. Due to her recent trauma, and her mental illness, she was unable to attend several appointments with her employment service provider. As a result, her Newstart Allowance was cut off. Lucy cannot afford to pay rent without her payment. Centrelink refused to accept her medical certificate and exempt her from mutual obligations. Lucy is concerned she will not be able to meet the requirements and will continue to be cut off Newstart Allowance placing her tenancy at risk.

*names changed to protect privacy


Centrelink putting Australians at Risk of Homelessness – The New Daily

Homeless Despair at ACT bureaucratic delays – The Canberra Times

Accusations fly as Canberra’s vulnerable moved to make way for developers – The Guardian

Australia’s broken social safety net – Policy Forum

LiveFeed – The Guardian

On the Edge – life on welfare today – Radio National, Life Matters

For more information and interview opportunities please contact Leanne Ho, Executive Officer: eo@ejaustralia.org.au tel 0448 007 201 or Sophie Trevitt, report author: tel (02) 6218 7900