At the start of Anti-Poverty Week 2015, a Google image search of the term ‘homeless’ returns pictures of ageing, overweight men sporting unkempt, dirty beards. In most photos, they are brandishing paper bag-covered bottles or cardboard signs with poorly spelt pleas for help.
Craig has a beard but it’s neatly trimmed. He’s 25 years old, articulate, athletic and gainfully employed. He’s trying to focus on my questions, but Ben keeps leaning over and slapping him on the chest.
I’m struck by how easily this family – Craig, his girlfriend Sarah, and their seven-month-old son Ben – could be my neighbours. But I know they don’t live next door. They don’t have a home at all. “I’m looking every day, but I can’t even get to the inspection stage,” Craig says. His shoulders droop and his voice quavers. “The places are gone just hours after I apply.”
Craig had a challenging upbringing in Macquarie Fields, but through hard work, persistence and casework support he managed to eke out what looked to be a promising future.
Last year, he was working as a builder’s labourer, renting a small flat in Ingleburn with Sarah, and excitedly awaiting the birth of their child. Income was low, rent was high, and life was a struggle; but they were getting by. Craig was gaining skills at work and dreaming of career progression.
Then, the labour hire company he was working for told him they could they no longer afford keep him on. His income plummeted to the Newstart partnered rate of $236.30 per week, and Craig was unable to make the weekly rental payments. Craig and Sarah desperately looked for another place to live but in Campbelltown the median rent for a two bedroom apartment was $340.
“It was terrifying, I was freaking out,” Craig said. “Our baby was due in just a few weeks and we had nowhere to live.”
In situations like these, many young people turn to their parents – to put them up for a few months or help pay a rental bond. “I haven’t seen my Dad in years and I’m not really in touch with Mum, she lives in Adelaide,” Craig tells me.
Faced with few other options, Craig and his young family moved in with Sarah’s family. He’s grateful for their generosity but five people already lived in the three-bedroom weatherboard house. For the past year, the couple and newborn have been crammed in a four square metre spare bedroom.
“Squeezing so many people in the one confined space creates mental health issues,” says James, his caseworker at Doorways for Men. This program run by UnitingCare and funded by NSW Family and Community Services tries to find homes for men who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. James really has his work cut out for him. There are well over 120,000 unemployed people in Sydney, but according to Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot 2015 there are just 41 properties affordable to someone on income support.
Craig is delighted to have found James after dealing with numerous transient caseworkers during the past year. The two of them have formed a close partnership as James guides Craig though the labyrinth of welfare bureaucracies and the brutal private rental market. James has even helped Craig with job applications and prepare for interviews. A few weeks ago their collective efforts paid off when Craig secured another labour hire contract.
His new job is in the inner city. It can take him two hours to get to work via public transport. “I don’t really care about the travel, I’m just happy to be working.” Craig perked up for the first time in the interview. He has to get up at 4am every day to make it to work on time, not the easiest thing to do when you sleep a metre away from a crying baby. But he loves his job.
“Sarah tells me that she can deal with Ben when he wakes up at night,” he says. “But really I want to do my share, at least make the baby formula while she calms him down. On a good night, I can manage about six hours sleep.”
A new job, though, hasn’t been a silver bullet. Craig’s income has jumped, but his gain means Sarah loses a big slice of her benefits. And their combined income makes them not-so-desperately poor, meaning they are no longer eligible for social housing or other forms of housing assistance. So Craig has to compete with the masses clamouring for those few properties that can be rented for less than an arm and a leg. “I’d probably have to pay half my income in rent,” he says. “But I really want Ben to have his own room.”
If only he had that choice. Craig has completed numerous rental applications and got nothing but rejection. Craig’s biggest fear is that child protection authorities will come after him because he can’t provide his son with stable housing. He defies the stereotypes that promote harsh and unfair judgements. Craig works hard every day, doesn’t drink or do drugs, and dotes over his son.
Housing was once thought of as a basic human right, but in Sydney it’s become a game of monopoly played by wealthy investors. At the same time, social housing is being sold off and welfare benefits tightened. More and more families are getting pushed to the outskirts of the city where opportunities are scarce. Those already there are falling into oblivion. It won’t be long before searching the term ‘homeless’ returns a photo of someone who looks just like us.
Australia’s homeless deserve a better deal than this. The status quo is unacceptable when poverty is compromising life chances. While not for profit organisations like UnitingCare will always be there to for those living on the margins, we need a collective response to the structural challenges that make poverty and its complex impacts so difficult to unwind. The McClure Review of Australia’s Welfare System awaits a principled and coherent response that ensures a minimum decent standard of living in accordance with community standards. Reform of the tax system can support investment in social and affordable housing and housing affordability. A new debate on infrastructure must consider how essential new investment can create training and employment opportunities for those without work. It must also embrace social infrastructure so that access to quality early learning, education and health services are not contingent on capacity to pay. These are major economic and social challenges but a failure to respond impoverishes all of us.
Oliver Jacques is a Principal Policy Officer in the Centre for Research, Innovation and Advocacy (CRIA), UnitingCare Children, Young People and Families