Scott Kovacevic investigates a wave of poverty threatening to sink Gold Coasters
The view from Alan Eastwood’s apartment, overlooking a disused bowling club, isn’t a dream vista. Overgrown grass lies sterile in the sun, bleached of colour, forgotten. But, to Alan, his apartment and its view are his most prized and wonderful possession. On a disability pension after a vicious assault left him unable to work, he pours every cent he receives into maintaining his home. But with no other source of income and faced with rising costs, Alan is struggling to keep a roof over his head. And he’s not alone, because on the Gold Coast an increasing number of residents are on the verge of homelessness.
Recent reports show one in seven people are living below the poverty line across Australia. It’s a sobering statistic, one that’s hitting the Gold Coast even harder with an increasing number of people seeking help from crisis services. Over the April-June financial quarter requests for assistance from Blair Athol’s HATS, (providing help to people at risk of homelessness), have nearly doubled. A perfect storm of Government service funding cuts, coupled with a sky-rocketing service costs and a stagnant local economy, is sending more residents spiralling into poverty. For many Gold Coast residents, the reality is that you don’t need to be homeless to need help.
Alan’s disability pension ensures he has a roof over his head. But once the rates, utilities and mortgage have been paid, there’s not much left for things like food. “Water here in this little tiny unit is now $100 a month,” he says. “It really is quite ridiculous… money is one of the things we just don’t have much of.” It’s left him relying on charity organisations for meals and he’s not alone. Rosies outreach services say that 50% of patrons at some of their Gold Coast venues have some form of safe accommodation. Blair Athol Accommodation and Support agrees, saying there is clearly a growing trend. Liz Fritz, Blair Athol’s Co-ordinator, is seeing it first hand that for people on Gold Coast, having a home or job is no longer enough to survive.
“What we’re finding is that more of our people that do come for our services have some form of work,” she says. “For example, we have a family – Mom, Dad, two kids – where his take home pay after tax for the week was $622. Now, these people are paying $480 a week in rent and you can see that even with another $150 a week from the Family Tax Benefit there’s not much money left. The mom used to work full-time, but now she’s got two young children to take care of.” She says that overall, the Gold Coast’s homeless network is running at capacity. More and more people are struggling to stay afloat.
Statistically, house rental cost on the Gold Coast sits beneath only Darwin and Sydney. Renting a unit is cheaper than other major cities, but will still set you back $370 per week, numbers compounded by the Gold Coast having a higher rental ratio than both Queensland and Australia. But it’s not just the rent that’s causing stress. Costs for services like electricity and childcare have risen, and the Gold Coast’s stalled job market only adds to the pressure. According to Government estimates the number of local jobs has barely changed over the last five years, despite a steady increase in the population. In fact, Gaven MP Dr. Alex Douglas believes that the official rates of unemployment are worse than reported. “I’d follow the Roy Morgan numbers,” he says “and they show that true unemployment is closer to 10%, and the underemployment level- which we thought was 14%- could be as high as 20-25% in regional places.” He believes underemployment is the biggest concern, with more people forced to cobble multiple jobs together- and it still may not be enough.
Sitting in the heart of Nerang, the electoral office lives cheek to cheek with the economic downturn. The shop next door is vacant, a ‘For Lease’ sign hanging in the window with no indication when it will be shelved. There are several others lingering in windows less than two blocks away. It’s a sign of the times, and Dr. Douglas believes that both Council and Government have contributed to it. “They have done absolutely nothing… in fact, they’ve cut bus services. [In Nerang], you can’t get a bus after 4:30 in the afternoon or on a Saturday or Sunday.”
Alan Eastwood sees it every day. He relies on the Gold Coast’s public transport service to get around, and he says the system isn’t as convenient as it used to be. “We do see a lot of dead bus stops around, where they’ve cut back the bus services tremendously.” As well as it being harder to get to charity and meal support, he says, concession services aren’t always helpful either. “We do get a little sticker on our Go-Card which gives us free travel between 8:30am and 3:30pm from Monday to Friday- but on buses only. If you go on the new tram you must pay.”
Bus fares are just a small part of the problem, though. Gold Coast residents are struggling with larger financial commitments, too. Through June 2014, the northern end of the Gold Coast had the second highest number of debtors in Queensland, and there are claims that Gaven has one of the highest bankruptcy rates in the state. But Dr. Douglas says people’s financial troubles aren’t stopping Governments from trying to collect on their debts at all costs.
“A fellow come to me saying that SPER (State Penalties Enforcement Registry) told him he needs to eat less food. They said he’s got to cut back on his food consumption by $3-$5 a week to meet his commitments. This is a guy who had to retire early, he lives on a pension and he’s a volunteer. They said at one stage they’ll let him work it off, but then said that he can’t because he’s not fit enough… I mean, why do people think SPER isn’t being paid back? Because people don’t have any money. And people might say these are just the one’s and two’s, but it’s not. There are a lot of people affected in the same way.” The intense push by Government to ‘balance the budget’, he says, is stretching people’s incomes beyond breaking point.
Liz Fritz says this belt tightening is causing nervousness within the homeless assistance network, too. “We do know that National Government policy is really wanting to save money, and crisis services are very expensive to run… We’re not certain of the future of emergency relief funding. The Federal Government hasn’t announced the grants for the future yet. We’re still waiting.” Until then all funding is only confirmed until September 30, 2015, while the Government reviews policy with a look at realigning available funding and services. What the final outcome could be is anyone’s guess, leaving charity organisations to secure funding from other sources. Rosies media liaison Cat Milton is quick to point out a problem there, though: there’s only so far money can spread if everyone’s asking for it. And she says private funding can be affected by an increase in poverty, too. “Organisations like Rosies are very much reliant on public generosity, and obviously the harder people are doing it the less they give to us.” And at what point do the existing charity services overload?
For Lee Walsh, retirement hasn’t been as financially secure as he’d hoped. He and his wife own two apartments between them, the fruit of their working years, but what should be a good deal is becoming a monetary nightmare. A recipient of the pension, Lee collects $500 a fortnight. His wife is still ineligible but collects rent from one of their apartments. “It produces $320 a week,” he says. “The Government says that $320 is income, but in reality there’s at least $120 going out in body corporate, and there’s also rates and electricity and water, so it’s really more like $150; but social security says we’re getting $320. So out of that we’re really getting $800 a fortnight that has to cover the two bedroom unit’s rates, body corporate, electricity, water and a car registration. And to sell the property now would entail a $55,000 dollar loss.” Managing their finances is big challenge for a lot of people, and finding help is getting harder.
Over the last 12 months the Queensland Tenancy Advice and Assistance Service has closed its doors, and the Federal Government has discontinued the National Rent Affordability Scheme. Local options have been cut, too: Queensland is the only state in Australia with no dedicated financial counselling program, and several financial counsellor positions on the Gold Coast have reportedly been axed. As a result, charities are finding accessing them is taking longer than ever. Smaller staffs are forced to deal with larger workloads, forcing people to wait longer. But, often, waiting is a luxury they cannot afford. Liz Fritz says that it’s the difference between having a home and living on the street.
“It’s easy for people to try to pay their electricity bills, and then they fall behind on their rent and then they become at risk of homelessness.” Even the old argument of simply working harder backfires in unexpected ways. “You only have to 50 cents over the margin of eligibility to lose a Government concession card, which gets them access to cheaper bus fares and prescriptions. We see people that have gone out and gotten themselves a few extra hours work and it’s pushed them over the threshold.” Having an extra job or extra hours brings added costs, and one step ahead quickly becomes three steps behind.
Once people do become homeless, Cat Milton says, they quickly find themselves caught in a snowball effect. “To get a Centrelink payment you need an address, so that’s a pretty big stumbling point right there. They process payments online now, which helps, but that requires access to an internet connection. Quite a number of our patrons have mobile phones- which allows them on the internet- but then they’ve got to charge it. If you have a phone that is charged then you are contactable, which means you can access your payments and be available for job interviews, but then being presentable for a job interview is quite tricky.
In a black and white world identifying and helping people before they become homeless is the ideal solution. It’s one the State Government has identified, recently providing new funding for Blair Athol’s HATS program. But reality is grey, and homeless assistance is plagued by a problem familiar to other social assistance groups. “People are embarrassed,” Liz says. “They never expected to be in these sorts of situations and find it very difficult to look for handouts.” Away from charities, people can be left asking their families for help; but even if they do, there’s no guarantee that their families aren’t struggling too, or even that their family lives on the coast. Some people then find only options left are to cheat the system or find work ‘under the table’.
Dr. Douglas believes we’re at risk of creating an underclass on the Gold Coast; that people that can’t afford help will be turned away by an overburdened system, which will result in more problems for generations to come with no ability to help them. Liz Fritz echoes this fear. “We can only do what we can do. So people will either be required to wait for services, or they just won’t be able to get them.” And if charities can no longer help, where will Gold Coast residents like Alan and Lee turn then?