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Homelessness in Australia

HOMELESS AND ACCESS TO SOCIAL SECURITY

The homeless can face impediments in accessing entitlements under the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) and therefore some of those facing the greater financial struggles are denied help that could have been afforded to them.

To make a claim from Centrelink, a person must establish their identity using “100 points” worth of evidentiary material. These include birth certificates, driver’s licences and passports. Individuals who are suffering from primary homelessness, that is they have no conventional place of residence and rather take shelter in public places such as parks and streets, most often cannot meet these criteria or struggle to do so and the process delays their ability to receive assistance as quickly as possible. A former identification system used to allow a person to rely on three documents, one of which could be a letter from a youth or social worker. The reintroduction of this system would make it easier for homeless persons to establish their identity because they do not have access to the range of documents that others have.

The Newstart Allowance is a Centrelink payment for the unemployed. In 2012 there was a Senate Committee into the adequacy of the allowance payment system for jobseekers and others, the appropriateness of the allowance payment system as a support into work and the impact of the changing nature of the labour market. The Australian Council of Social Service has called on the Federal Government to increase the new start payment by $50 in line with the findings of the Senate Committee. A Salvation Army report found that 7% of single parents seeking emergency relief from the Newstart system were homeless and yet single parents have lost around $60 – $100 per week under recent budget cuts.

The Social Security Act does not mandate a minimum wage and those who cannot earn a livelihood are not guaranteed payment; the Special Benefit for individuals in this situation being at the discretion of Centrelink. Furthermore, activity requirements are normally imposed on the Newstart Allowance. These requirements are normally conditions of job-seeking and they must be fulfilled before payments will be made. For an individual struggling to find accommodation, these conditions may not be imposed at the right time and may hinder rather than help the individual.

The lack of a fixed address can also make it difficult for correspondence about benefits and conditions to be communicated to individuals. A lack of literacy and numeracy skills in the homeless population means that some may struggle to understand correspondence when they can receive it. It has been recommended by Philip Lynch and the Australian Human Rights Commission that Australia Post develop a system where homeless individuals can elect to have their correspondence directed to a post office of their choice and that post office workers can be trained to go through the letters with individuals to ensure they are receiving all their entitlements and correspondence.

Once identity requirements and activity requirements are made less restrictive and correspondence mechanisms are made more accessible then homeless people should be better able to claim their entitlements and build a foundation for a stronger economic future.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE AND HOMELESSNESS

The Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic has said that the homeless are among the most disenfranchised demographics in Australia. Voting in Federal elections is a legal obligation under the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth).

It is estimated that around 70,000 homeless people were eligible to vote in 2007 but were not enrolled. In other words about 64% of the homeless population was of voting age. It is not compulsory for a person with no fixed address to vote in Federal elections but they do have a right to vote. Voters without a fixed address are called itinerant voters. Itinerant voters can enrol in a division:

a) where they were last eligible to be enrolled, i.e. the last place they lived for at least one month

b) where one of their next of kin resides, if they have not been previously eligible to enrol as per above

c) where they were born, if the neither of the former options applies to them

d) where they have the strongest connection, if none of the former options apply.

An itinerant voter is defined by Section 96 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) as someone who is in Australia and has had no real place of living (which is a broader concept than permanent address) in a subdivision for at least one month. An application must be made to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to enrol as an itinerant voter.

A significant number of homeless persons access crisis accommodation, much of which is funded by state governments and various charities, when they are in serious need of immediate shelter. Data suggests that homeless persons who lived in crisis accommodation stay on average for 56 days; well over the maximum amount to be eligible to enrol as an itinerant voter. However they also cannot enrol as an ordinary voter because they have no permanent or fixed address. This is an anomaly in the law that needs to change. Such an anomaly does not exist in the voting provisions for Victoria. Section 3A of the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic) allows persons living in crisis accommodation to enrol as itinerant voters no matter how long they have stayed there. The Homeless Person’s Legal Clinic has recommended that the one month restriction be extended to six months to allow for homeless persons who do move into crisis accommodation to be able to enrol as itinerant electors.

For some homeless persons fear of being fined for failure to vote may deter them from enrolling. Itinerant voters will not be fined if they fail to vote and this fact, along with the enrol options listed above must continue to be communicated to them. If an itinerant voter fails to exercise their right to vote then they may be taken off the electoral roll. This practice should cease because it increases the risk a homeless person will be disenfranchised when they do attempt to vote in the future.

In addition to location requirements, a voter must meet the proof of identity requirements under section 98AA of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. First priority is given to providing a driver’s licence number. Failing that, the person can have a prescribed enrolled elector cite a prescribed document and sign on the enrolment that form that they have done so. A prescribed document includes, but is not limited to, a passport or a birth certificate. These criteria are restrictive for homeless people, particularly as those facing primary homelessness and secondary homelessness (moving between various, temporary forms of shelter such as living in crisis accommodation or coach-surfing with friends or relatives), and do not have access to such identifications.

The identification criteria are also problematic because prescribed electors are people of the professional classes, including lawyers, police and nurses and some homeless individuals do not have connections with these individuals and cannot afford to see them. Some may also not feel comfortable approaching these individuals. The Commonwealth Electoral Act does not allow Centrelink cards to be used, and yet this is one source of identification that most homeless individuals have access to.

During the 2013 Federal parliamentary election, the AEC ran a trial program to encourage more homeless people to participate in democracy. Mobile polling booths were set up in community centres in three electoral divisions in Western Australia in the week leading up the general polling day, allowing individuals living in homeless shelters to enrol without a fixed address. This trial is expected to lead to nationwide changes in coming elections. Whilst these changes look likely to increase the number of homeless persons enrolling to vote, the changes argued for in this article must also be undertaken in order to reach those homeless persons who do not live in homeless shelters or community centres. The Victorian Electoral Commission has initiated a community engagement program to better educate homeless persons’ about their rights and the AEC should follow suit.

Article 21 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that everyone has the right to take part in the governance of his country directly or through freely chosen representatives authorised by universal and equal suffrage. The homeless must not be forgotten when democratic opportunities come along in Australia.

Phillip Liberatore

The author Phillip Liberatore

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