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Wanted: Child-Friendly Sharehouse

31 October 2012

Lewis received the call ten minutes before collecting his six year old daughter, Jessica, from school. The conversation was brief. The voice on the other end of the line said the room was already taken. Lewis ended the call and began to massage the back of his neck. It was Friday afternoon. That left five days to find somewhere to live.

“I was pretty desperate,” explains Lewis (last name withheld). “I didn’t have much money and I needed to find somewhere for both of us. And it had to be close to Jess’ school. I’d been staying at a mate of a mate’s place, but that was a short-term arrangement. I went to Gumtree and Readings in Carlton, made all the calls, but had no luck. Soon as I mentioned the kid it was game over.”

With close to 40,000 people within the state currently waiting for public housing, the Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) has identified lone parent families as the most vulnerable when it comes to housing issues. They are 11 times more likely to be struggling in private rentals. Consequently, with private rental prices escalating, lone parents are more susceptible to repeated instances of insecure tenure. Only 2.3 per cent of metropolitan rentals are affordable to lone parents with a single child living on an income of $500 per week. Crisis accommodation services and single parent assistance groups are subsequently receiving a record number of requests for help.

“I would say that every day, just about every call would be about financial difficulty that’s linked to housing,” says Jacquie (last name withheld), spokesperson for the Council of Single Mothers and their Children. “A lot of people, while they wont say, ‘I’m homeless,’ they will say, ‘My rent is really expensive and my utility bills are really expensive and I pay those first and now we don’t have enough money for food.’ It’s a huge problem at the moment.”

It’s a problem social welfare advocacy groups fear will be exacerbated by the Federal Government’s latest decision to move those receiving parenting payments onto the Newstart Allowance once their youngest child reaches eight years of age. This move will see vulnerable families become $60 poorer per week.

With the Residential Tenancies Bond Authority identifying the median rental price of a two bedroom flat in Melbourne’s metro area as being $350 per week, any reduction in parenting payments could potentially further exclude lone parents from an already meagre private rental market. Research conducted by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute suggests that many lone parents are already relocating to the outer limits of the city.
The real concern with that, says Jacquie, is that many lone parents become isolated from support services.

“It’s more affordable, but they’re out there and suddenly they need a car or have a car and can’t afford petrol. I had a woman call and she’d moved quite far out and she needed specialist treatment every week and couldn’t actually get to where she needed to. A lot of her money was going on taxis,” says Jacquie. “And they’re further from their personal support networks too, which in itself is a significant health issue.”

For lone parents like Lewis, moving to the city limits isn’t an option.

“I can’t afford a car. And public transport from out there doesn’t work. I need to get Jess to school in the morning,” he says. “And I need to get her home at a reasonable hour too.”
Due to the housing crisis, many lone parents that share Lewis’ predicament are now seeking share-house style accommodation within the inner suburbs. However, many experience difficulty in obtaining something suitable.

“The places that were willing to give us a go, I went round and checked them out and they were pretty low. Pretty obvious with the drugs and that sort of thing,” says Lewis. “I could’ve lived there, but they were no good for my daughter.”

Organisations such as the Council for Single Mothers and Their Children and Carlton’s YMCA have recognised the trend. Both provide active social network services to assist lone parents in their search for suitable, affordable accommodation.

“Basically it’s a share-housing register,” explains Jacquie. “We manage to place a handful of single parents, but it’s very, very difficult. If you’re going to live with other people who also have children you need to have a similar parenting style. We’ve had people so desperate that they take anything. Obviously people in a more stable situation don’t want that desperate person to move in if they’re incompatible. That only disrupts their family life.”

Eventually persistence paid off for Lewis. “I ended up with a cheap, single room in a share-house. The bloke with the lease has a little girl, but he doesn’t get to see her. He was sympathetic to my circumstances,” says Lewis. “It’s not ideal for Jess, but it’ll do us for six months. Hopefully something better will show up along the way.”


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