On July 1, Australia’s chronically underfunded homelessness support sector will suffer a $65 million blow under a silent swoop of federal funding cuts.
About 650 homelessness support workers nationwide stand to lose their jobs — 200 in Victoria alone — while demand for assistance grows.
"It's hard to imagine a worse time to cut homelessness funding,” Council to Homeless Persons CEO, Deborah Di Natale, told VICE.
"To give you an idea of the strain homelessness services are already under, about 16,000 people who need support are turned away each year.
"How many more people are going to miss out on the services they desperately need with rental prices going through the roof and vacancy rates plumbing new depths?”
A group of 230 Australian charities and homelessness service providers signed a joint letter to the Federal Government earlier this month, urging them to plug this “black hole” and arguing it will not only pile pressure on the already stretched support workers and organisations, but it will also see more people in need slip through the cracks.
The letter, addressed to Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Minister for Housing and Homelessness Julie Collins, noted 42 per cent of people in the system are aged under 24. Two thirds of people who access homelessness services are women and children and more than one third are fleeing domestic and family violence.
Victoria’s peak domestic violence support body, Safe and Equal, said demand for family violence services was at an all-time high in the state, and its most vulnerable people would feel the full force of the funding loss.
“People experiencing family violence, their sense of self is already so eroded and this just further reinforces the low value that society places on [these] people, mostly women and children,” Safe and Equal’s executive director of policy, communications and engagement, Louise Simms, told VICE.
“The Australian Government has made some pretty significant commitments to women’s safety, particularly the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children — there are some really meaningful commitments in that plan [but] cuts like this are completely counter to those commitments.”
The $65 million is set to disappear from the Equal Remuneration Order supplementation for homelessness services, which was introduced in 2012 by the Labor Gillard Government to cover wage costs in the women-dominated sector. The funding will expire at the end of the 2022-23 financial year and the government has made no commitment to renew it.
“The equal remuneration order was put in place 11 years ago, specifically to mitigate gender pay disparity,” Simms said.
“It was recognition that the community services sector and the women-dominated sections were significantly underpaid. Cutting this funding directly undermines the original intention.
“Making cuts is just going to disadvantage those working during a period where we already have a cost-of-living crisis and the gender pay gap remains significant. It’s counterintuitive.”
Melbourne resident Jody Letts experienced homelessness in 2015 after she suffered a workplace injury and, while on unpaid leave, her landlords wanted to sell the property she rented.
“I needed to find somewhere else to live, but unfortunately I had payslips that said $0.00,” Letts told VICE.
After 48 unsuccessful rental applications, she and her 13-year-old daughter turned to living out of their car, occasionally showering and washing clothes at friends’ houses in between Letts’ many physical and mental health appointments.
Months later, after accessing crisis accommodation and other homelessness support services, Letts became eligible for a support worker dedicated to their case. She said it changed everything.
“If she hadn’t existed in my space, what would’ve happened to us? She was, for 18 months, that rock we needed,” Letts said.
The worker not only helped Letts access funds, healthcare, housing — even movie tickets and op shop vouchers, she alleviated much of the stress that comes from having to repeatedly explain one’s story.
But Letts feels like one of the lucky ones, because there weren’t — and still aren’t — enough of these support workers to help everyone.
“For them to get a pay cut, how many people are we going to lose?” she said.
“They don’t even have enough of those people right now with the current funding to help everybody, so there’s lots of people like me who didn’t get that help.”
Letts said the funding cuts may make the government’s budget look better, but it would cost them more in the long run in added strain to healthcare, emergency services, policing and incarceration.
“They will leave those people without the comfort of someone helping them recover, to actually reverting back to survival. And when people survive, they steal things, they subdue their fears through drugs and alcohol,” she said.
“Instead of helping people, they will be pushing the population into a much more dire situation.”