It is tasked with tiding over unemployed Australians until they can find work, but new research suggests Centrelink is putting vulnerable people at risk of homelessness.
The Homeward Bound report, released on Tuesday, found the size of Centrelink payments and the hoops recipients are asked to jump through to receive them make finding a place to live exceedingly difficult.
The report was compiled by Canberra Community Law and National Social Security Rights Network, based on the experiences of more than 500 people across the Australian Capital Territory.
“Like all of us, these people had bills to pay, groceries to buy and people to look after,” report author and solicitor Sophie Trevitt said.
“However they were being forced to try and make ends meet often on less than $40 a day.”
‘Too low, too onerous’
The maximum amount someone can receive per week through the Newstart Allowance – the most common income support benefit paid through Centrelink – is $279.50, which Ms Trevitt noted is less than 40 per cent of the minimum weekly wage.
While some households will also receive commonwealth rent assistance and energy supplement payments, that would still leave them $96 short of the $434 a week the University of New South Wales estimates a single adult would need to get by.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with a social security safety net that forces people to live below the poverty line and leaves them at risk of homelessness in a housing market that locks out the most vulnerable members of our community,” Ms Trevitt said.
“Instead of providing a ‘safety net,’ dangerously low Centrelink payments are driving people into poverty and forcing them to make impossible choices between buying enough food for themselves and their families, paying rent and paying their bills.”
Anyone forced to apply for public housing then faces a lengthy wait, leaving them stuck with nowhere to go.
Further calls for Newstart raise
Ms Trevitt called on government to increase Newstart payments by $75 a week and then index future increases to inflation, with a review conducted every six months.
Commonwealth rent assistance should also be increased by 30 per cent, Ms Trevitt said.
Kasy Chambers, chief executive of Anglicare Australia, agreed with Ms Trevitt’s findings.
Speaking to The New Daily, Ms Chambers said Australians who rely on Newstart payments have been effectively locked out of the private rental market.
Anglicare’s recent rental affordability snapshot found that of 69,000 rental listings in Australia, only two would be affordable to Newstart recipients.
“That would have included a room in a share house too,” Ms Chambers said.
This is not about people being accommodation snobs, it’s that those properties simply aren’t there.’’
Ms Chambers threw her support behind Ms Trevitt’s recommendations, but added that indexing of future Newstart increases should be administered by an independent panel rather than a government department.
In addition to the financial barriers, Ms Chambers said the way Centrelink operates also acts as a barrier – even for people who are entitled to receive their payments.
“It can be quite punitive in the way people are responded to,” she said.
“We’ve certainly had people with mental illnesses say they feel worse after dealing with Centrelink, or they say they don’t feel they’re supported.”
Ms Chambers said Centrelink recipients would be better off if they were assigned a case manager who sat down and worked collaboratively to assess any debts, financial stress or other problems and helped find a way to overcome these.