BY JOSHUA KINDL
The Sydney CBD is a place of extremes. During the summer months, the brutal heat, amplified by the thick cement roads and the proximity of work-attired bodies, is unrelenting. In winter those same roads trap the cold, with Sydney’s abundant population of tightly packed skyscrapers responsible for funnelling biting winds through at unforgiving speeds.
This is the environment that Matthew, a homeless Australian, has inhabited for the past 11 years. From his corner, on the intersection of Hunter and Pitt St, he’s exposed to the elements 365 days a year, the same ones that many Australians hurry to avoid inside air-conditioned workplaces or vehicles.
He doesn’t mince words when discussing it.
“What’s it like? In one word: shitty.
“It’s a dog eat dog world, it’s really bad… big businesses and that, they can bullshit all day. But out here you can’t.”
Subject to government approval, an influx of homeless Australian’s could be joining Matthew in the coming months, as reports indicate that the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) is in negotiations with the Coalition government to pass a slew of changes to Australia’s welfare system through the Senate.
A spokesperson for the NXT said that the party has “not yet reached a decision” on whether or not the independent party, led by outspoken Senator Nick Xenophon, would support the proposed reforms.
However, the NXT has been in negotiations with the Liberal National Coalition to support the reforms for “approximately six months”, according to the spokesperson.
These changes, if passed, would see the implementation of a demerit point system for welfare recipients who failed to meet set requirements, such as apply for jobs or attend interviews.
Other changes include the removal of ‘Intent to Claim’ provisions, which allow citizens negatively affected by personal circumstances to receive welfare payments without requiring a full claim to be lodged.
Mission Australia Executive, Ben Carblis, says that these new changes will ultimately lead to increased levels of homelessness in Australia’s major cities as poorer Australian’s lose access to vital income streams.
“The Bill does make it more difficult for people to access payments and tightens compliance arrangements which will push people who are already struggling into further poverty.
“The government should be focussed on supporting people out of poverty, including through the provision of adequate social security payments, not making people wait longer for essential payments or excluding them from income support for long periods,” Mr Carblis said.
Matthew, when asked of his opinion on the proposed laws, agreed with Mr Carblis, saying that making it harder for people to access welfare would push many to the streets.
“Changing the laws and that, it’s only going to make things worse. There’s going to be more people out here and there’s going to be a lot more crime,” he said.
According to Homelessness Australia, there are over 100,000 Australians who are currently experience homelessness; about 0.5% of the population.
New South Wales leads all states with approximately 28,000 homeless, roughly a third of which are below the age of 24.
In a recent statement, Homelessness Australia Chair, Jenny Smith, said the proposed reforms would have a significant negative impact on these figures.
“These welfare reforms may save money in the short-term, but will only increase costs in homelessness and housing support, as people who could have managed on their own are plunged into crisis and need homelessness help.
“If passed, the new measure will force people to live without any income for weeks, making it impossible to pay the rent, and most certainly pushing thousands into homelessness. Our agencies are already struggling to cope with demand.”
Mr Carblis agreed, adding that a rapid rise in the cost of living in Australia’s major cities makes the situation faced by low-income Australian’s even more perilous.
“We know that in many places across Australia, rents are rising much faster than incomes, causing people to be pushed into rental stress which is a major driver of homelessness.
“Not only are the people we help facing challenges paying their rent, the rising cost of living including the cost of energy, transport and food means people on lower incomes are often forced to make unacceptable choices. Some are even choosing between having the heater on and eating fresh vegetables, or are simply left unable to pay their rent and at a high risk of homelessness.”
With the support of the NXT, the proposed reforms could pass through the upper house in the coming weeks.
In her statement, Ms Smith says that it is imperative for the NXT to withdraw their support.
“We’re appealing to the NXT to take a stand against measures that punish those who are already doing it tough. We need to extend the ladder down further, not yank it away from those who need it most.”
According to Matthew, it’s those who are facing the prospect of soon living on the street that need the most support. He’s seen a lot and learned even more after more than a decade spent homeless, but there’s one lesson he says everyone forced to live rough quickly understands.
“Getting here is easy, it’s only one short step to the bottom. But it’s a long way back to the top.”