Homeward Bound: Homelessness, Centrelink and the Law

adminSocial security rights review

Sophie Trevitt 

In November 2019, the National Social Security Rights Network and Canberra Community Law released a major research report examining the intersection between homelessness, public housing and Centrelink.

Homeward Bound examined the experiences of 567 clients in the ACT navigating Centrelink, public housing and homelessness. Researcher and solicitor Sophie Trevitt examined 12 months of Canberra Community Law client cases and advices that dealt with housing and social security issues.

The report was released publicly and briefings were provided to the Departments of Social Security and Human Services, and Housing ACT.

Homeward Bound made a number of key findings:

  1. People relying on Centrelink are frequently driven into financial hardship where they are unable to cover basic living expenses (bills, groceries, medication, transport etc.) and rent;
  2. Women, single parents, people with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately suffering from financial hardship and at risk of homelessness;
  3. The Commonwealth Government should immediately raise the Newstart Allowance, Family Tax Benefit and Rental Assistance to support the most vulnerable members of our community;
  4. The punitive, and often inaccurate, practicing of raising robodebts against social security recipients often affects the most vulnerable recipients – including those with precarious and insecure housing;* and
  5. There is insufficient affordable, social housing in the ACT to ensure all Canberrans have somewhere safe, secure and decent to live. The ACT Government should increase its housing stock as a matter of priority, and revise its policies to ensure its not locking the most vulnerable community members out of public housing.

The extremely low rates of Centrelink lock social security recipients out of the private market. A recent Anglicare Rental Snapshot found there were only 2 rental properties that were affordable to a single adult on Newstart in the entire country. This leaves the majority of Centrelink recipients with no other option but to access public housing.

However, Homeward Bound found that in the ACT (as is the case in all other states and territories) people can spend years on the public housing waiting list before being allocated somewhere to live. People commonly spend over one hundred days waiting for housing, even when Housing ACT has determined that they are eligible for priority housing.

Those not on the priority waiting list can end up waiting a number of years before they are given somewhere to live.

For those who are lucky enough to be allocated public housing promptly, even subsidised rent proves unsustainable for many living below the poverty line on social security payments such as Newstart.

Without sufficient income, people are forced to choose between paying rent, bills, groceries and any other incidental expenses that life throws at them.  For example, the current rate of Newstart is $40 a day for a single adult. This is below poverty line and leaves Newstart recipients with no discretionary funds to deal with unexpected challenges. Homeward Bound found that this meant rent was often sacrificed to meet unexpected medical expenses, bills, debts and the effects of domestic violence. Failing to pay rent leads to rental arrears, debts, threats of evictions and in some cases actual eviction and homelessness.

Homeward Bound contains a number of recommendations for the Commonwealth and ACT Government to better support members of our community access and maintain tenancies. Everyone deserves somewhere safe and decent to live – that means urgently increasing crucial social security payments and the amount of social housing available to our community.

Homeward Bound is the first of what NSSRN and CCL hopes is a national research project mapping the experiences of people on Centrelink who are navigating housing insecurity and homelessness, and making recommendations to all levels of government to better support all members of our community.

* The National Social Security Rights Network and Canberra Community law welcome the recent Commonwealth decision to abandon its current practice of calculating debts through an automated “income averaging” process, and its commitment to review all existing alleged debts. However, robodebt is only one part of a system of often punitive, difficult to navigate and inadequate social security measures that drive vulnerable people further into poverty, put their tenancies at risk, and contribute to the rising rates of homelessness around the country.