On the streets
Angela Pandelidis’ plight is a microcosm of the nationwide housing affordability crisis. For the Greek-Australian community the situation is even worse, writes Mike Sweet
Angela Pandelidis sounded scared when I spoke to her this week. "I'm putting my hand up and I'm saying 'I give up, please help me, I don't know what to do anymore'," Angela told me.
The first time I'd spoken to Angela, a fifty-year-old single mother, was two days before Christmas, after she'd moved temporarily to the Parkvale Motor Inn, on Victoria's Nepean Highway. It's been an emergency arrangement made after the intervention of Hanover Welfare Services.
She sounded more relaxed then. Angela and her two sons, James and Michael, had been living in her car beside Mordialloc beach on Port Phillip Bay before that. The motel at least gave them sanctuary over Christmas. But as the new year begins, Angela is again at a loss to know where she will be next week. She's due to check out of the motel this Friday. The next possible step is a crisis centre, though she's desperate to avoid putting her children through more torment.
"I think the kids have been through enough," says Angela, who is unable to place her children in a school next term as she has no idea where she will be living. Angela and her boys are at the sharp end of the national housing crisis that now affects thousands of Australians. Losing her full-time job through chronic ill-health in June last year was the beginning of a continuing nightmare.
Evicted from her $300 a week rental property four months later, she and her boys have been homeless ever since. With no assistance available from her extended family, she's had to rely on welfare services to patch together emergency accommodation. With timelines to proceed up the waiting list for housing association properties measured in years, there's no end in sight. Tony Keenan, CEO of Hanover Welfare Services says that Angela's story is increasingly common.
"We've seen massive rises in family homelessness over the last five years. Whilst the Federal Government's injection of $5bn into social housing is welcomed, this is still a drop in the ocean in terms of addressing two decades of neglect of housing by State and Commonwealth governments." Mr Keenan said the challenge for Hanover is dealing with an overwhelming demand, forcing staff to make incredibly difficult decisions. "Often the best we can offer is a few nights in a motel. Having said that, through the generosity of donors, we still have a great number of success stories, helping families get kids to school in difficult circumstances, getting young homeless people into work, and supporting families like Angela's."
The benchmark for monitoring Australia's housing availability, used by government and industry, is the National Housing Supply Council's State of Supply Report. Its latest findings released last month show that while housing supply in Australia has increased, it has risen at a slower rate than demand, with the gap between demand and supply increasing from 28,000 dwellings in 2010 to 186,000 in 2011.
Without action, the report shows that the gap is set to stretch to a shortage of 640,000 dwellings by 2030, and as always, the hardest hit will be low-income earners.
Dimitri Bouros deals with housing enquiries as a case worker at Melbourne's Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS). He says the situation for the Greek community in Victoria is as bad, if not worse, than the national picture.
"We're getting four or five enquiries a month for what I call chronic housing problems, usually people who have had gambling problems, or personal breakdowns due to divorce, people down on their luck." Bouros says that most typically, he is "contacted by pensioners in the Greek community on Centrelink payments and people aged between 55 and 70. They're on their own, often as a result of disputes with family members which has led to family breakdown." Dimitri says he's also seeing elderly homeowners who have paid off their mortgage, being forced to consider selling their property because they are unable to sustain ever-increasing council rates and utilities bills.
"These homeowners are faced with using the capital to rent, but there are few rental properties they can afford. Or they're faced with, say, selling the place in Northcote for $700,000, moving to Werribee for $300,000. Then with $400,000 in the bank, they are unable to receive Centrelink benefits." New to the situation is what Dimitri calls 'fresh' housing enquiries, directly linked to the crisis in Greece.
"There are about a dozen people contacting us every month, calling from Greece or from their families here, wanting to find out about accommodation for themselves or relatives who have come, or are planning to come out from Greece." Such enquiries to AGWS have climbed considerably in the last six months as the Greek crisis has deepened.
"Many of these people are coming out on a one-way ticket. We also see Greeks with little connection to Australia making enquiries. They've just called up their uncle who lives in Brunswick or Northcote, and the uncle has said 'we'll try and get you a job here'."
Bouros says AGWS has been able to help people particularly affected by chronic housing problems, by putting them in touch with local housing service associations like Hanover, and by helping critical cases access the meagre emergency financial assistance that exists. AGWS' experience provides chilling evidence that the housing affordability crisis is affecting the Greek community more deeply than state or national averages. Meanwhile, the beginning of a new year offers no comfort to those at the sharp end.
As this article went to print in last Saturday's English edition of Neos Kosmos, Angela Pandelidis and her children are once more packing their bags, with no clear destination in sight. AGWS can be contacted on (03) 9388 9998.
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