This piece was in the Age Sunday essay last week and has been shared and re-published widely. I hope it gets some traction in the minds of politicians who keep erasing the experience of people whose lives often bear the cost of structural injustice. Thanks to Adam Bandt (Greens, Melbourne) and Ged Kearney (ALP, Cooper) for sharing this and to the many people who have responded. The editorial in the Age yesterday spoke to the issue of Newstart payments and there were a number of letters specifically referencing both this story and Tony Wright’s on the same day (21/7/19 The Sunday Age). I am glad to report that Alex Phillips, whose story is told, has been happy with the process and is currently comfortably housed.
No lights, no linen: How Alex survived for six years on Newstart
By Julie Perrin
I have known Alex Phillips for 18 months. Most Tuesdays I’ve met up with him at the Olive Way drop-in centre in Sydney Road, Brunswick. A small engraved name badge tells people I’m a volunteer. This discreet delineation answers the question in people’s eyes – the ‘what are you doing here?’ question. People who live the life of hard knocks can easily tell I’m not one of them, but they alk to me anyway.
Alex stands out and always will because one of his legs is so wrangled out of shape. His right knee is permanently bent and his leg elbows out to one side from his hip. Once I went with him to an orthopaedic surgeon to get a letter of support because he’d been refused a Disability Support Pension. The verdict that his leg was “irreversibly and permanently deformed” did not dismay Alex; he had known this for a long time already.
I was curious about Alex – he was direct in eye contact and forthright in conversation. By arrangement and with gravitas he told me the story of his childhood, full of warmth for his foster mother. He brought in a collection of small black and white and faded colour photos which he held between finger and thumb with the care of a curator.
Minnie Florence Phillips was the woman who put her hand up to care for Alex. You can see this care in him now – the polite inquiring after others, the attention to possible and intended meanings, the earnest explanations. When I write up his story for the Olive Way newsletter, he corrects me: “I wouldn’t say it was hard. I was very lucky, I had a good mum.”
Later he reiterates: “I had a very good upbringing.”
When I first met Alex, he was living independently in a one-bedroom flat he’d been in for eight years. Alex has worked for most of his life with a bung leg. Early on he did outdoor work, later he was a patrolman driving between locations checking on building security. After 13 years at a mattress factory, at age 44 he was made redundant. In 2012 he went on Newstart.
Newstart for single unemployed adults is $555.70 each fortnight, or just under $40 a day. Both Labor’s Jenny Macklin and then-Liberal Julia Banks once declared they could manage on the Newstart allowance. Neither of them were put to the test and Macklin later apologised. In May 2018 John Howard went on the record saying he believes the freeze on Newstart has gone on too long. Scott Morrison has no plans to increase it.
Alex’s experience may be instructive.
This is how Alex managed on Newstart for six years. In order to maintain the $288 per week rent on his one-bedroom flat, and pay for utilities and food, he turned off his fridge and heating. He lived on two-minute noodles, 65-cent cans of baked beans, packet soups and bread. He couldn’t afford margarine. He came to Olive Way for lunch three days a week. He showered at the Salvos to save on water and heating and rather than use his washing machine for bed linen, he slept on his couch in an overcoat.
His bad leg was playing up as he grew older but the only time he went to the pharmacy was when he had the flu. He’s had the flu three times in three years. A Myki travel card and mobile phone were necessities to keep up with Newstart job-hunting requirements. Even with the addition of rental assistance which brought his fortnightly payment to $695, rent took more than 90 per cent of his income. He did not turn on the lights in his flat but used the torch in his mobile phone.
To reach the tram stop, Alex held on to the fence posts down the street. Sometimes he’d keep his balance by walking with one foot in the gutter to even up the height of his legs and keep him more stable against the camber of the footpath. He caught the tram every day and got to know the drivers. As well as the Salvos and Olive Way, he went to numerous appointments necessitated by Newstart job-hunting and skills-learning requirements.
When he had to move out of his flat, a tram driver who’d become a friend offered to mind his washing machine and fridge until he found another place to rent. This man and his wife also invited Alex to share Christmas with them.
Patronising remarks by the staff at the disability employment support centre sparked a steely kind of outrage in him. But when they told him they’d easily found work for a double amputee, he became anxious and angry. He was so used to accommodating Newstart requirements that he began worrying that amputation was being proposed. When the demerit point system was invoked, the threat of having Newstart cut back put a darkness across Alex’s face I had not seen before.
By the time Alex’s Disability Support Pension (DSP) assessment review came up, he was homeless. His landlord wanted to renovate and Alex had to move out. He was fearful about what sleeping rough might mean for the arthritis in his damaged leg. Initially he set up in a neighbour’s garage with no bathroom facilities. Then, in a rare stroke of good fortune, he got a room in a housing facility for homeless men. He could shower, eat, sleep and stay warm. His face was shining.
Last week, Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp was interviewed on ABC radio after the new Federal Assistant Housing Minister, Luke Howarth, had publicly downplayed the problem of affordable housing for people on low incomes. He was “putting a positive spin” on it. Capp said that her office received more letters about people sleeping rough in the CBD than anything else. These letters weren’t asking for law and order, she said. They were asking: “How can we help?”
There are programs that offer unfiltered on-the-ground information for politicians and senior decision makers in industry. For those who are open to acknowledging their lack of experience with the day-to-day realities of poverty, Financial Counselling Australia offer A Day in the Life. With permission from callers, these visitors get to listen in to the details and stories of financial stress. It is sobering information, and it is often clear that the circumstances have not arisen due to carelessness or poor choices.
When the internal Centrelink review dismissed his DSP application a second time, Alex was ready. He went to see his local MP, Adam Bandt, who was moved to speak in Parliament about Alex’s situation. It is possible that without Bandt’s intervention, Alex would still be waiting to have his appeal heard.
His case came up at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) early this year. He had prepared himself with advice from Social Security Rights Victoria and evidence the GP and physiotherapist at his local community health centre had helped him collect.
Alex carried a carefully tended plastic shopping bag of documentation. When he met refusal and bureaucratic blocks, he had a way of reporting his situation that reminded me of TV courtroom dramas. Often, he would say that he was going to “get to the bottom of the truth”.
The AAT ruled that Alex met the criteria for a DSP. He is no longer living on Newstart. The pension is set at $1063 per fortnight and he is free from the requirement to attend pointless job interviews where employers would lose interest as soon as they saw his disability.
Alex still comes to Olive Way most weeks – he likes the company and the atmosphere, he offers a welcome to people. On my first day there he asked me what I’d be doing in the afternoon. I said that after I finished work, I’d be preparing a big cook-up for a family dinner.
During the slight pause that followed, I realised this was not something that would be happening at his place. Alex said: “Well, if you’re close to your family, you’ve gotta respect that.”
His wish for me had all the overtones of polite generosity that I imagine Minnie Phillips had taught him.