By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
A Darwin rental property manager won social media hearts recently when she successfully crowdfunded her client’s rental arrears after his pension was cut off.
Derek Holbrook lives alone in Darwin. His pension recently came up for review under Centrelink policy, but the 65-year old was so overwhelmed by the paperwork that he ignored it. After unsuccessfully trying to contact him several times, Centrelink cancelled his payments based on the assumption he was receiving financial assistance from the UK.
This left Derek spiralling into debt, until his rental property manager Rebecca Want de Rowe went into action, helping to sort through the confusion. However, by the time the bureaucracy had rectified the situation, Derek had fallen into rental arrears of $1,350.
Derek turned to local charities for help, but they were facing their own crises – unable to cope with the number people in need.
This is when Ms Want de Rowe ramped up her efforts to help Derek, using her Facebook Page to ask for information about potential social service options. Instead of just getting information, the Good Samaritan was overwhelmed by people wanting to donate.
A crowdfunding initiative eventually raised the rental arrears plus another $600, which paid for linen, bills, food, clothing, and a new bicycle to improve Derek’s mobility.
Far from an isolated case
The ABC recently told the story of 81-year old Lee Blake, who is living out of a bus on Sydney’s Northern Beaches on a pension of just $280 a week, and with little hope of ever being able to pay for a rental property, not even one that is subsidised.
Statistics from Mission Australia suggest that more than 20,000 people aged over 55 sought homelessness services between 2015 and 2016.
And those working on the front line are laying the blame squarely at the feet of the federal government and, in particular, Centrelink, where people are often left ‘on hold’ for long periods waiting for help from call centre staff to sort out payments and other issues.
Mission explains that inefficient administration and processing means issues can take weeks to resolve, leaving pensioners without money and in some cases forcing them into destitution.
Pension is not enough
Along with having to face a flawed bureaucracy that moves at a snail’s pace, pensioners also have to face the cold hard reality that their entitlements are not keeping pace with the cost of living.
Rising medical, energy, living and food costs mean many are pensioners going without basics and juggling bills from week-to-week, so that they can simply afford to survive.
Figures from an OECD report written just three years ago (2015) suggest that more than one-third of Australian pensioners are living below the poverty line – and there is no indication things are getting any better.
The report also found that the Australian government contributes less than half the percentage of its GDP to old-age benefits than other OECD countries – spending just 3.5 per cent of GDP on the pension when the OECD average is 7.9 per cent.
This is in the context of Australians having one of the highest life expectancies in the world, meaning more people are on the pension, and for longer. Men have a life expectancy of 80 years women 84 years. Approximately 80 per cent of all Australians aged 65 years and over rely on the pension.
Last year, the Queensland Council of Social Services reported that some pensioners had as little as $8 a week left in disposable after essential expenses.
Similarly, a national report titled The Adequacy of the Age Pension in Australia: An Assessment of Pensioner Living Standards, found that some pensioners were living on as little as $24 a day. The report recommended increases in rental assistance, better dental services and a broadband supplement to allow pensioners to use online health and government services.
But instead, the government seems to be making things worse, tightening the asset test and eligibility criteria for the pension. Many that are presently retiring will not receive their expected superannuation payouts, and some will even need to continue working. Many were devastated by the effects of the GFC on their superannuation funds, and will be retiring on far less money than expected.
It’s alarming that people 65 years and over make up seven per cent of the homeless population across Australia, often having to cope with the elements in an increasingly frail state.
Frontline service workers say that as little as $50 extra a week could make a significant difference to many pensioners, calling on the government to get its priorities right.