The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of stable and safe housing and continuing access to energy and water services. The Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria (EWOV), in partnership with Financial Counselling Victoria, hosted a Community Agency roundtable for key community stakeholders in Gippsland to discuss these and other issues on 17th February 2021.
FCVic is grateful to have had the support and assistance of the Energy and Water Ombudsman for Victoria, Cynthia Gebert, and Latrobe Health Advocate Jane Anderson in conducting the roundtable.
This roundtable discussion provided opportunities for representatives from local agencies to reflect on issues and trends in the community around tenancy, energy and financial hardship, as well as to discover how like-minded organisations can work together.
Leonie Cooke, Financial Counselling Team Leader for Anglicare Bushfire Recovery in East Gippsland, provided some context for the discussion, noting that a natural disaster came through the area 12 months ago, which put a lot of displaced people in financial hardship, and then the COVID-19 pandemic came. This combination of events delayed the recovery for many people impacted by bushfires who feel they should be a lot further down the track but aren’t because of all the lockdowns that have occurred in Victoria due to COVID-19.
All participants in the discussion acknowledged the fact that COVID-19 has increased levels of vulnerability in the community, particularly with regard to financial and mental health distress stemming from rental and energy hardship. Community service workers also spoke of instances where energy and tenancy issues caused knock-on effects with unintended legal consequences, such as child protection notifications resulting from utilities being cut off or people becoming at risk of homelessness.
With regard to housing insecurity, Leonie highlighted the fact that when a client has a total loss in bushfire, insurance companies will pay only for the first 12 months of rent. For many people, this period is coming to an end very soon with years to go before a rebuild of their house is complete. Participants from across Gippsland noted the challenge in obtaining a rental property due to a lack of affordable long term housing options – the general sentiment being that ‘there’s just not enough to go around’. As a result, many people are being forced to live in unaffordable, substandard or transitional accommodation, and are at greater risk of homelessness.
This housing shortage means that many tenants live in fear of being evicted from their rental accommodation because they know they are competing against so many people to access another place to live, according to Tracie Lund, Coordinator Neighbourhood House Morwell and Latrobe City Councillor. As a result, the top priority is to keep the roof over their head, before trying to keep the power and water on, which may mean they fall behind in paying their utility bills. Food becomes an optional extra, and Tracie noted that at the end of June 2020 there had been a 77% increase in people accessing food supports from the previous financial year.
Georga Wootton, Outreach Lawyer at Tenants Victoria reported that in addition to those receiving Centrelink benefits and pensions, there is now an entirely new cohort of tenants suffering financial hardship due to COVID-19. Georga also pointed to a link between rental stress and increased costs of living in terms of energy and water usage when everyone is required to stay home. She referred to the La Trobe Health Advocate’s report on the costs of climate control and the impact on wellbeing for tenants suffering financial hardship who cannot afford to turn on the air conditioning or the heater. Adding to this is the impact of poorly insulated buildings and cheap white goods, which increase the cost of gas and electricity for people who are unable to afford more expensive energy-efficient options.
Financial Counsellors Sue Battle and Mike Kirkness from Latrobe Community Health reported that their service is averaging six to seven clients a day seeking help with utility bills. However, they noted that a lot of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients across the Gippsland region are too proud to say their utilities have been disconnected. They are going without electricity and gas and they don’t know what their options are. Mike is an Aboriginal man from Queensland and he says that there is a lot of trust that needs to be built in the communities in order to get people to come forward and talk about these issues.
Brendon Witt, Manager Gippsland & East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-Operative Community Support Services said that people are struggling out there, no matter how many hardship payments and grants are available – a bit of relief doesn’t go very far in the scheme of things. He also reported an increase in drug and alcohol use in the community as a flow on effect of financial stress and skyrocketing utility bills during the stage 4 lockdown. “We tend to do things that we probably shouldn’t be doing because that’s a temporary time out for what we need to do, even just to give ourselves a mental break.” The problem of mental health issues brought on or exacerbated by financial distress was a prominent matter in the discussion.
Looking ahead, Energy and Water Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert spoke about the ‘cliff that we’re going to fall off’ when JobKeeper and the JobSeeker Coronavirus supplement wind up at the end of March. Cynthia underscored the need for the Victorian community service system to work together to make sure that we can assist people in the areas where they need help most immediately – for example, avoiding disconnection from energy retailers – while also dealing with the more complex systemic issues. In her words, “Having people fall through the cracks while we’re trying to solve the big, gnarly problems isn’t okay from my perspective”. Latrobe Health Advocate Jane Anderson also reflected on the importance of integrating different services so that people can more easily access the system and feel safe and comfortable to have these conversations. She acknowledged that the shame and judgement people associate with financial stress requires a longer-term response, and emphasised the need to have more open conversations in the community around the fact that any of us can experience financial issues at any time. Financial counsellors can help have those conversations and bring humanity to people’s experiences.