Homelessness and social security rights

Every night there are 116,000 Australians sleeping without a home. They are mothers and children escaping family violence, young people with little support, families unable to keep up with rent, people living with disabilities. Once, homelessness was thought by many to be something that happens to other people, but that’s changing.  

Homelessness is a growing crisis in Australia. Rising interest rates mean landlords have needed to increase rents. Add to rising rents the increase in cost of living and basic necessities such as food and heating and you can understand why, for many families living on Centrelink payments, housing has become simply unaffordable. 

Homelessness 2022 (1-7 August) is an annual campaign run by Homelessness Australia that seeks to raise awareness around people experiencing homelessness, the issues they face, and the action that needs to be taken.  

The theme for this year’s Homelessness Week is ‘to end homelessness we need a plan’, and at SSRV we believe that plan needs to address the rate of Centrelink payments and issues of equality and accessibility to social security. 

Without a livable rate of social security, families will continue to be unable to afford to pay rent. Without equal access to social security, the number of the most vulnerable people in our communities experiencing homelessness will continue to grow.  

This Homelessness Week, you can help raise awareness by sharing your stories, thoughts, ideas and concerns about homelessness and housing on social media, using the hashtag #HW2022. 

You can also find a Homelessness Week event near you and raise awareness about homelessness by sharing social media tiles.

This week and beyond, SSRV will continue to work for real change to our social security system, while providing free legal advice on social security and Centrelink matters for people right across Victoria. 

The Choice: violence or poverty

Violence or poverty: this is the terrible choice many women escaping family violence in Australia face every day. This week, ABC’s current affairs discussion show Q and A dedicated an entire episode to addressing the issues around single mothers and poverty.

The program focused on a newly-released report from journalist and researcher Anne Summers that drew on data especially prepared by the ABS mostly from the 2016 Personal Safety Survey. 

The panel included Anne Summers, Jess Hill, author of See What You Made Me Do, Veronica Gorrie, author of Black and Blue, Federal MP Anne Aly and anti-violence activist, Arman Abrahimzadeh, who all took questions from the audience, including Leanne Ho from Economic Justice Australia, who asked a question we consider crucial to addressing family violence:

“What will the new Labor government do to ensure that economic security, particularly social security income support, is included in the new National Plan for the Safety of Women and Children?”

While Minister Aly re-affirmed the Federal Government’s commitment to supporting single mothers escaping family violence, there was no such commitment to include an increase in social security as part of its National Plan for the Safety of Women and Children.

Watch The Choice: violence or poverty on iView.

SSRV believes that women escaping family violence will continue to be faced with the choice between violence and poverty unless livable social security rates are addressed.

Next Friday, Federal and State ministers with portfolios responsible for women’s safety will meet to discuss economic safety for women. We are urging these ministers to make economic security a key pillar of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

Georgina Sack, Executive Assistant

I started my position as executive assistant to SSRV Director Gillian Wilks in 2021. My role is to assist a very busy Gillian with day-to-day tasks and requirements and act as liaison with staff and some of our external stakeholders. This gives Gillian the ability to focus on the bigger SSRV organisational picture.  

Due to the pandemic, I had to start the position remotely and get to know everyone via Zoom. It was wonderful returning to the office a couple of months ago – I had the chance to see how ‘tall’ everyone is.

This is the first time I have worked in a community legal service. My working background has been a varied one, working in primary schools, hospitals, medical research institutes and colleges. I even had a job working at the Museum of Victoria when it was situated alongside the State Library. We worked up in the roof top area and to get to the staff tearoom we had to walk across scaffolding without handrails. Quite a feat and I’m still here to tell the tale!

When I am not at work, I enjoy scuba diving and bush camping; both activities I prefer in summer to winter. I also enjoy daily walks with our greyhound Mr Henry.

The SSRV team is a very dedicated and compassionate team, working in a challenging area of community law, and I feel very privileged to be supporting them.

SSRV’s Integrated Services Project: expanding our reach

Recently SSRV’s Integrated Services Project has taken opportunities to get out and about, connecting with communities at in-person events both in Melbourne and regional Victoria.

At the end of May, the Integrated Services Project (ISP) team – Graeme Parsons, financial counsellor and Dermott Williams, community lawyer – were invited to visit Ballarat and take part in a debt expo organised by Ballarat and Grampians Community Legal Service. The conversations Graeme and Dermott had were meaningful, and it was great to connect with people in their own community rather than remotely, the way SSRV normally operates. 

This is particularly important in regional locations, where, as we’ve seen with other events such as one’s we’ve contributed to in Gippsland, that face-to-face contact and trust building is essential to meeting the needs of clients and other community organisations with which we work.

In early June, the ISP team participated in the Young Carers Festival, closer to home at the MCG. Graeme and Dermott attended with a team from FCVic to promote the work of financial counsellors and SSRV to carers and their families, with a particular focus on issues they may be facing with Centrelink and social security related issues. It was a fantastic evening with many impactful conversations happening throughout the night.

SSRV is looking forward to more opportunities like these, visiting and engaging with people outside the constraints of our usual service delivery and in the best way for the people who need us.

Did you know?

Every day, Centrelink makes thousands of decisions about payments, debts and other matters governed by the Social Security Act 1991. The number of decisions also increases significantly in the aftermath of a disaster.

Sometimes Centrelink gets these decisions wrong. Any decision can be appealed at no cost through a process conducted by an Authorised Review Officer.

If you aren’t happy with the review officer’s decision, this can also be appealed at no cost, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. 

Economic Justice Australia has published more detail about this.

Find out more about SSRV’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan and read more from our Did You Know? series.

Did you know?

Every day, Centrelink makes thousands of decisions about payments, debts and other matters governed by the Social Security Act 1991. The number of decisions also increases significantly in the aftermath of a disaster.

Sometimes Centrelink gets these decisions wrong. Any decision can be appealed at no cost through a process conducted by an Authorised Review Officer.

If you aren’t happy with the review officer’s decision, this can also be appealed at no cost, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. 

Economic Justice Australia has published more detail about this.

Find out more about SSRV’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan and read more from our Did You Know? series.

Reconciliation Week 2022: Be Brave, Make Change

This Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), SSRV remembers the importance of privileging and amplifying First Nations’ voices and we add our voice to calls for reconciliation and justice. 

Reconciliation is a journey for all Australians – as individuals, families, communities, organisations and importantly as a nation. At the heart of this journey are relationships between the broader Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

The theme of Reconciliation Week 2021 is ‘Be Brave. Make Change.’ It’s a challenge to all Australians to Be Brave and tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation so we can Make Change for the benefit of all Australians. 

Read more about Reconciliation Week 2022.

For our part, SSRV are working at making our organisation more culturally safe and respectful, and to better engage and respond to First Nations clients and community. 

SSRV believes we can all be brave and play a role in reconciliation and collectively build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories, cultures, and futures. 

Find a Reconciliation Week event near you.

SSRV Stories: Ellie

Ellie* is a single mum of three girls living in Melbourne’s west. She is a survivor of an abusive relationship with the father of two of her daughters.

In 2009, Ellie received a $30,000 overpayment debt from Centrelink. Centrelink had made a decision that she had received the incorrect rate of Parenting Payment for a number of years leading up to 2009, as she had been paid the single rate of payment.

Centrelink alleged that she was only eligible for the lower couple rate of Parenting Payment. Ellie tried to challenge this decision on her own through the Authorised Review Officer (ARO) review process, and later to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). 

This was an incredibly difficult task for her as she suffers from multiple severe mental health conditions, which were being exassabated by having to recount the instances of violence perpetrated on her in the years prior to the debt being raised.

Ellie was unrepresented at the AAT in 2014 and was unaware that legal services might have been available to her at the time. She did not know she had a further right of review, to the General Division of the AAT, and started the process of slowly paying off the large debt, which left her and her daughters in a position of severe financial hardship. 

In 2020 Ellie was referred by another community legal centre to SSRV.

SSRV assisted Ellie in arguing that she should be given an extension of time to have her matter reviewed by the General Division of the AAT, with the benefit of having legal representation, given the compelling circumstances in her case.

Ellie, with the assistance of a legal representative from SSRV, was successful in obtaining a six-year extension of time from the AAT.

SSRV then represented Ellie in a review application at the General Division and successfully negotiated a settlement agreement to have the full $30,000 debt waived and all previously recovered amounts were repaid to Ellie.

Ellie told her SSRV lawyer that she has felt a huge weight lifted, having someone help her to navigate this complex appeals process and that she could not have done it without the “caring, compassionate and dedicated support of the SSRV staff and students” she worked with since coming to SSRV in 2020.

A common story

Ellie’s story illustrates, firstly, how difficult it can be to navigate the tribunal processes and secondly, some of the challenges that victim survivors of family violence face with Centrelink.

Currently, the steps for appeal in a Centrelink matter are:

1 – Authorised Review Officer – the internal appeal in Centrelink

2 – Administrative Appeals Tribunal First Tier, called the Social Services and Child Support Division

3 – Administrative Appeals Tribunal Second Tier, called the General Division.

It’s important to know that there are short time limits to appeal. Although the Tribunal does have the discretion to extend the time, do seek early advice because delay can affect the exercise of the discretion and any backdated payments.

As the overwhelming majority of people self-represent in the AAT, if they miss the deadline to apply for an appeal, many do not know how to navigate the process of seeking an extension.

If the extension of time is opposed, as Ellie’s was, they then need to attend a hearing to argue that the extension of time should be granted, before the General Division will consider the substantive issues. SSRV was able to assist Ellie with this process and we recommend clients call us if they are in this situation.

In Ellie’s instance, SSRV was able to negotiate a settlement on the basis that the Department could use its discretion to decide that Ellie was not a member of a couple, even if there were some characteristics of a relationship present. 

The consequences of this were that Ellie could have some of the money that she had already paid off the debt, returned to her.

To determine whether someone is a member of a couple, Centrelink will look at your:

· Financial arrangements

· Accommodation and household set up

· Social relationship

· Sexual relationship

· Commitment to each other 

If you’d like to read more about this, see this factsheet about relationship status and Centrelink.

If you need more assistance, please get in touch.

Legal Assistance Line: 0419 793 652 or 03 9481 0355

Worker Help Line (for support workers): 0429 450 346 or 03 9481 0655

*Names and some identifying details have been changed.

Staff Profile: Graeme Parsons, Financial Counsellor

I’m Graeme, the Financial Counsellor at SSRV. I work as part of the Integrated Services Project, in partnership with FCVic and have been in the post since November last year.

I previously worked in the banking industry for many years and I’ve worked as a financial counsellor here in Melbourne and in Sydney. 

I’m originally from the UK, and lived in Asia for some years before moving to Australia 20 years ago. Two of our children are now off at university, with the younger one poised to fly the nest in the next few years.

When I am not working, I am involved in local rugby (in a non-playing role these days) and in Life Saving – in fact, I’ve recently started as a pool life guard. The irony of an ageing Englishman who arrived in Australia barely able to swim 50 metres now being tasked with guarding the aquatic safety of others, is not lost on me.

Like our work at SSRV however, it is reassuring how, with training, attitude and teamwork, we can bring surprising and positive outcomes. I am looking forward to continuing to be part of such a diverse and dedicated group and organisation.

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