In Australia, there are more than 3.24 million people or 13.6% of the population living below the poverty line. That includes 774,000 children or more than 1 in 6. In a country like Australia, this doesn’t have to be the case, but successive Governments have ignored the warning signs and continue to ignore the policies that could drastically improve the lives of people on low incomes. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and domestic violence are all interwoven, and all impact someone’s health, well-being, life expectancy and opportunities. It’s very bad for the person, and for us all, yet our Governments chose not to act.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic our welfare payments were grossly inadequate, keeping people below the poverty line. A lack of affordable housing (specifically public and social housing) compounded the problem into a crisis. This crushed people, making life about survival rather than stability, safety and rebuilding. In 2020, State and Federal Governments acted quickly when COVID-19 reached Australia. They raised the Job Seeker payment, instigated rental moratoriums and rapidly housed rough sleepers. Street homelessness was virtually solved over a 4 week period. These strategies kept people safe, improved and protected people’s health and wellbeing, enabled people to combat hunger, and immediately lifted recipients out of poverty.
Volunteers out at night dropping off meals and checking on people throughout COVID pandemic
However, these COVID-19 supports were wound back and only re-instigated, in a limited capacity, for short periods of time and to a smaller cohort of people experiencing lock-downs. While people receiving key income support payments were eligible for the Coronavirus supplement in 2020, over 80% – three quarters of a million people – have been ineligible in 2021 for COVID Disaster Payments, despite living in lockdown areas. At the same time it was revealed that thousands of companies received Job-Keeper while increasing revenues, wasting $27 billion.
The ABS recently published data shows Delta lockdowns have driven employment back below pre-COVID levels, with 110,000 fewer jobs being worked in September than in March 2020. About 280,000 people have lost work since July 2021. People have continued to lose their jobs, or have reduced work hours, especially those in hospitality, retail, the arts, small business owners, and tourism. The ABS also reported that many people accessed their superannuation during 2020 lockdowns, with 31% used for mortgage or rental payments, and 29% on household bills. Women, young people and small business owners have been disproportionately impacted.
At StreetSmart we work to support people who are experiencing homelessness. Usually, they are also experiencing poverty and hunger, and often domestic violence. From listening to our community partners, we know we are currently dealing with a homelessness and poverty crisis. Millions of people are struggling to meet their basic needs of a safe place to call home and provide food on the table. Those experiencing a housing crisis have few options. They may be living rough, sleeping in their car or living in dangerous and poorly kept rooming houses. Many are in rental arrears, on the brink of evictions, going without basic necessities to pay rent or mortgage payments. Queues around the block at foodbanks, especially across Melbourne and Sydney, are the evidence that people are really struggling to make ends meet.
StreetSmart SmartMeals program is providing 3500 nutritious meals per week
StreetSmart supports hundreds of frontline community organisations each year, and we are hearing the same message from them all – they are seeing record numbers of people turning to them for assistance. Many have told us they are facing ‘overwhelming demand’. They are seeing people, seeking emergency relief and food relief services, for the first time in their lives. Demand has grown significantly, leaving many organisations under-funded and under-resourced. Many organisations we support such as community centres, neighbourhood centres, small charities, and food and meals programs are all reliant on volunteers, who should not be relied on to respond to ever increasing numbers seeking help, especially those with complex needs.
Frontline workers and volunteers have supported millions of people through the COVID pandemic
A recent report from Diamond Valley Community Support highlighted the rising demand, finding food relief has doubled in the past 3 months. Another organisation who in 2020 had supported 3-4 families per month was now assisting 76 families. While clients experiencing domestic violence has increased 3-fold, with 21% of all clients having experienced family breakdown.
We must act
Why, as a society, are we happy to perpetuate poverty? Why do we spend billions of dollars treating the outcomes of poverty, rather than on the prevention of poverty. We fund crisis responses, food banks and relief programs, healthcare and mental health services, crisis accommodation and rental support. But it’s mostly too little, too late. It doesn’t have to be like this.
We must call on our Governments, through local MP’s, to increase Jobseeker and other income support payments, immediately, enabling people to pay bills, find accommodation, pay for medicines, school uniforms and equipment and have resources to find work. And we must invest in public and social housing, at scale, as essential infrastructure, that allows people on a low income safe and secure housing from which to build a life. We also need investment in housing first and support services for people with complex needs. COVID-19 showed us the immediate and positive impacts of supporting people to cover the basics and keep a safe roof over their head.