My story is not a typical story of poverty or unemployment. I am from a university educated, high socio-economic background. I guess if anything, my story shows this can happen to anyone.
In April 2013 I was house sharing with a friend to divide our costs and our house lease was coming to an end. We were both long term unemployed despite university educations and over three decades of experience each. Me in health and law, the other person in accounting. We were both divorced with grown up children.
Prior to this I had private rental in Hobart seeking work in a larger city, while again living (existing) on the Newstart allowance. At that time in my desperation, I spoke with the Salvation Army counsellor in Newtown. She listened which was nice, but my situation was not typical of homelessness, drug use or mental health issues.
My Launceston share housing was essential to afford to stay in the private rental market. The costs for heating, power, and bathroom groceries were cheaper when shared by two. Prior to this I had privately rented solo which was extremely tough on a Newstart allowance only so house sharing was needed. I had a credit card so I used this to pay bills which I could not cover with Newstart. My credit card was maxing out.
With the end of my house sharing lease, I had nowhere to go. I lived for a few nights in a caravan park, in two hotels, and at a friend’s place. I could afford to buy groceries and put fuel in my car with the Newstart, but bigger bills such as car registration, nursing registration or a phone bill monthly were paid on my credit card.
I am a nurse. I have paid thousands of dollars in taxes over the past three decades. I am used to earning a moderate to high income. However, I am grateful to the welfare system within Australia, for without it I would now be dead. In the middle of this homelessness, unemployment, poverty, I was diagnosed with a terminal illness / disability like MS. It was increasingly hard to stay positive and show hope.
I had a small fortune (to me anyway – over $100,000) in my superannuation which I could not get to. And so my situation was that day to day I lived in poverty – buying home brand groceries, forgoing any social life unless it was free like the public library or walking, giving up any expense that was not essential to staying alive; while all the time my superannuation fund was over $100,000. I was not of the aged pension age, financial hardship criteria or the compassionate grounds required to access my ‘super’, so on the Newstart, I continued to apply for jobs as required, but always knowing that as an over 50 I would be too old to be successful.
So in my desperation I wrote to the three major political parties and TasCOSS asking for help to get some of my superannuation. TasCOSS phoned me straight away. They were great. They listened empathically. The Greens party never answered my letter. The Labor party answered my letter three months later (I can’t help thinking I may’ve been dead by then), and surprisingly, it was a key player in the Liberal party who freed up enough of my superannuation so that I could pay off my credit card and some of my debts. I DO NOT BELONG TO ANY POLITICAL PARTY.
After continuing on for a further twelve months with daily poverty and a rising credit card again, the Newstart allowance and its job search requirements, a terminal disability, I kept going within the private rental market, after listing with both Anglicare for crisis accommodation and Housing Tasmania but to no avail. I feared for my safety if I stayed in a common group share crisis home. My possessions were in a laundry basket in the backseat of my car and other stuff was in my boot. I had furnishings in storage. Again the storage charge was put on my credit card.
My Newstart allowance included rent assistance fortnightly, and I budgeted it so it covered my rent $380 (a small unit within a retirement club for those over 50), petrol $30, power $30, groceries $150. If I had any over it was perhaps $10 or $20 per week. My ‘treat’ was to buy a cup of take out chai latte. My two ‘adult’ children who live interstate received empty cards on their birthdays and for Christmas.
HOPE – HANG IN THERE
Finally now in 2015 my poverty situation has eased a little although now my terminal disability has worsened. I have finally after three attempts, successfully circumnavigated the Centrelink disability payment with the help of my general practitioner and my medical specialist, and accessed and closed off my superannuation fund. With my superannuation monies I have been able to purchase a home and end my rental poverty after three years of Newstart.
This story is not a whinging complaint of a long term unemployed person who has never paid any tax. That is not my story. Newstart allowance, while better than nothing, is not enough to live on. Without my credit card I could not afford my bills. Without my terminal disability I would not have got my superannuation before my preservation age.
I contemplated ending my life when the combination of poverty, unemployment, end of my lease – homelessness, terminal disability yet no way to get my superannuation all got too much for me. The police took me away and cleared off the alcohol and medications I had ready for me to swallow in my hotel room and I am obviously alive still. I volunteer at several places now including the community legal centre, the radio and with Vinnies, and I daily battle my limitations with my disability solo. But life has some hope now, some purpose now and the poverty is no longer restricting all parts of my life. But even now I find it hard to spend on any non-essentials although sometimes I treat myself.
For 10 years I nursed dying people in a hospice and I know there are worse off, but poverty can be soul destroying, and hope burns out for many and it is hard to keep going. I understand despair.
So I wish TasCoss well with this story gathering and any lobbying they may be able to do to raise the Newstart allowance or to stagger it for those of us who have contributed a lot of tax. Also, while I understand the need to carefully consider the applications for the disability pension, some of us applying are genuine and our disability may claim our life before the pension is granted. Not all applicants can be boxed in to the form questions.