Overcoming housing stress and cost of living pressures

Problems of housing stress have become increasingly evident among the people the St Vincent de Paul Society assists.

Our members assist people in need in our community in many ways. The primary method of assistance is through parish Conferences that provide assistance to people in need in their local communities. Assistance may include food, clothing, furniture, utility payments, financial assistance and someone to talk to. The Society’s Conference members therefore see first-hand the circumstances of those living in poverty in our community.

Nationwide, the Society has over 60,000 members, volunteers, and employees. In the Canberra/Goulburn region, for example, there are 54 Conferences, and approximately 650 Conference members.


NSW pilot program linking families and individuals to multitude of services

The St Vincent de Paul Society is one of the last member-based charities in Australia whose members visit the homes of those in need.

Our Society members are finding that visits to some families and individuals are needed more frequently than in the past, and that assisting them through rent support, warm clothes or advice on paying their energy bills may not be enough to help them overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles they face.

Now, through a trial in Wagga Wagga, members can call up our state Support Services, where they speak to qualified case workers who connect them with government and non-government agencies, Society services and other external specialised services.

“Our new program, Society Link, focusses on getting people the right support in the least intrusive way,” says Christine Callaghan, Executive Officer of Support Services.

“Sometimes a listening ear and a short term fix are not enough. When a Society member is concerned that the support needs of the person they are assisting are more complex, they can chat to someone at Society Link. They can be reassured that the individual will be linked with appropriate services and programs that suit their specific needs and that there will be ongoing support, in safe hands. These referrals address both immediate and longer term concerns.

“With the consent of the person seeking support, Society Link staff keep the Conferences up to date on what outcomes are achieved, so that the local Conference can continue to be involved as needed.”

Cameron, a man in his fifties, recently fell on times of personal and financial hardship. His long term turbulent relationship ended and he had no option but to live with family. He overstayed his welcome and sought emergency assistance through Housing New South Wales. However, Cameron couldn’t find appropriate housing, so he resorted to rough sleeping in a park. Cameron found the winter nights in the park unbearable and came to a Society Conference seeking assistance.

The Conference member contacted Society Link. The caseworker helped pay for accommodation while Cameron got back on his feet. A referral was made to Edel Quinn, the Society’s Wagga Wagga crisis accommodation and case management service. They were able to follow up Cameron’s Housing application and within a week he moved into his own property.

They helped Cameron settle into this new home, obtaining furniture and household goods from the local Vinnies shop, and helped him alleviate his financial concerns. Today, he is doing well and no longer requires support from the Conference or Support Services.

“We are one Society with one way of working – respecting the dignity of those we assist and encouraging them to take control of their own destiny. But this can be challenging, so having the support of the Society Link phone service is making a huge impact,” explained Christine.

“Society Link helps our members navigate the support options offered by the Society. By connecting members to Support Services we can ensure a hand-up and not a handout. So far, we’ve had extremely good feedback from people who have been assisted, as well as from Support Services staff and Society members.

“I hope we can expand Society Link into more regions, but it will require additional financial resources.”

Your generosity makes the design and expansion of unique programs like Society Link possible.

A young mother sits on a couch with her laptop open in front of her and an infant seated next to do her reaches over to touch the laptop.

Study into housing stress in Canberra Goulburn

The St Vincent de Paul Society Territory Council of Canberra Goulburn conducted a study into housing stress in the local community in 2010. The study found that those people having difficulty paying their rent are predominantly in private rental accommodation. However, there were a large number of others who are having problems paying their mortgages.

In a typical situation, a single parent who receives Centrelink benefits has a social security income of approximately $900 per fortnight. The present state of the rental market means that houses are rarely available for less than $450 per week. This evidently means that there is little or no money left for other expenses after rent is paid. Clearly, this is an impossible situation. Since the study was conducted in 2010, Vinnies has continued to see this pattern repeat itself, in many parts of the Canberra/Goulburn region, and the Society has spent substantial amounts of money just trying to keep people in their homes. In many cases these are families with children under 12 years old.

Results of the study point to a “new kind of poverty”

While there are many causes of chronic poverty in our community, such as relationship breakdown, mental or physical illness or disability, failed education or training, or simply a job market that is too tight, the present situation with insufficient affordable housing availability means that people who would otherwise be able to manage on a low income without asking for assistance have to turn to Vinnies to survive. This is a “new kind of poverty”, in the sense that people are being pushed into poverty purely by economic circumstances and the high cost of living, rather than by being unable to work or participate. These people are sometimes called the “working poor”. Until recently, this has been unusual and short term in Canberra Goulburn. However, it has now become a more frequent situation.

Measuring the extent of this is difficult within the resources of the Society in Canberra / Goulburn. However, in producing this paper, which reflects our first-hand experience “on the ground”, Vinnies hopes that the acuteness and significance of the problem will be recognised by the community and action to address this in our community will be embraced by government.

Case studies

Cost of living pressures

A couple with four children had no gas for heating and no electricity because of high rent. Mum cooked on the BBQ and they all have cold showers. The rent was $500 a week which left the family with $50 a week for food. This family was trying to tough it out but the situation was having a huge physical and psychological effect on the family.

Moving to secure affordable housing

Jane’s story

Jane contacted us in mid-2009. She was married with five children, including a 15 years old son with Down’s syndrome. She received family payment and disability support. Her husband earned $400 per week. The family was renting commercially at $450 per week, regularly fell behind with their rental payments, and were regularly threatened with eviction. They had been on the Government Housing list for several years and, at that time, were hopeful that they would eventually obtain priority housing. During the 12 months to 30 June 2010, we provided assistance valued at $10,800 comprising the following: $5,750 in rental assistance; $3,900 in food vouchers and food hampers; and $1,150 towards other accounts in arrears. We provided the family with information about a financial counselling agency. However, we recognised that, so long as the family remained in commercial housing, no amount of financial counselling would be able to resolve the underlying dilemma caused by insufficient income and high rent. We obtained the family’s consent to advocate on their behalf with the Government Housing Department. As a result, at the end of July 2010 the family moved into a new community owned house (four bedrooms, two bathrooms, solar heating and power connected to the grid). In the six months to June 2010, the family was contacting us fortnightly for food and other assistance. In the six months since the family obtained its community owned housing, we have received only one request for assistance with food.

Mortgage housing stress

Danielle’s story

We were approached by Danielle for assistance with mortgage arrears in February 2010. Danielle is a single parent with twin boys, aged nine years old, one of whom is autistic with very significant social behavioural problems. She has been fortunate enough to obtain part-time, intermittent work, but when we met her had fallen very substantially behind in her mortgage payments, and was being threatened with foreclosure. It was not feasible for her to look at selling her home as there was no equity in it. The quantum of her arrears was beyond our capacity to directly assist but we did help with several outstanding bills, and with food vouchers and food at an estimated value of $3,500. We referred Danielle to several other organisations for assistance, including a financial counselling service. Danielle advised us in January 2011 that these organisations are at an advanced stage of advocacy on her behalf with the mortgagor and with Danielle’s superannuation fund to enable her to draw down superannuation funds to put towards her mortgage arrears. However, her superannuation will meet only some 50% of her mortgage arrears and she is continuing discussions with the organisations concerned. She has also advised us that she has just secured a part-time employment position for 12 months.

Tom’s story

Tom and his family lived in their own modest home and had a mortgage of $150,000. Tom was self-employed and found that work dropped off substantially during the financial crisis. For nine months he had very little work, and the family fell behind with mortgage payments. When we visited the family, Tom had found alternative employment two weeks earlier and was now working seven days a week on two jobs. He was then paying 85% of his income off the mortgage. Their bank had started legal action to foreclose on the mortgage. We paid $4000 off the mortgage arrears which enabled Tom to catch up with the arrears enough that the bank would not foreclose.

Other problems leading towards homelessness

The following case study highlights that any of a range of events beyond peoples’ control can plunge them into a situation where they are threatened with eviction. These include domestic violence, marriage breakdown, or a family bereavement. The study also highlights the extreme difficulty that single parents with children have in finding suitable accommodation at a reasonable price.

Helen’s Story

Helen was a single parent, with four children aged between four and 10. Her partner had recently left, and was not offering ongoing support. Helen was receiving payments of only $584 per week. It would take her four weeks to receive a single parent benefit from Centrelink. She was paying $320 per week private rent and was in fear of eviction because of rental arrears.

Her two boys needed special needs education and were receiving this at the local primary school, and they are doing very well with this assistance. She was very anxious to be able to stay at her current address for this reason.

Helen also had an outstanding debt for a water bill because of her private rental situation. She was struggling to get her children back to school due to the cost of school packs. Helen had managed to get uniforms, but was left with little finance to live on. By the time she paid her rent, water account, got her children back to school and had money deducted from her current family Centrelink payment for electricity and phone the family was left with only $124 to live on for the fortnight (as she had not yet obtained her single parent benefit).

Helen had never asked us for assistance before. After the separation from her partner she was in a desperate situation. We supplied food and paid the rental arrears of $320. We contacted the Primary school Vice Principal who agreed to cover the cost of the books. We assisted weekly with food while she was awaiting payment of a single parent benefit. Helen has lived at her current address for the past four years. We advised her to put her name down for government housing. Because of her children’s special needs in education this needed to be in her current area. Unfortunately, due to the shortage of housing this could take a long time.