Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

The home stretch: Challenges and alternatives in sustainable housing for refugees and people seeking asylum

Housing challenges (pt 4)

Issues and challenges for people seeking asylum

While people seeking asylum face many of the same barriers and challenges as humanitarian entrants on permanent visas, consultation participants also identified a range of specific issues affecting this group. These include temporary visa status, exceptionally low incomes, the limitations of service provision models for people seeking asylum and inadequate transition support.

Temporary visa status

One of the main reasons identified in consultations for the precariousness of the housing situation for people seeking asylum was the temporary nature of their visa status. Many consultation participants spoke about people seeking asylum having housing applications rejected because of a lack of understanding by property managers and landlords about bridging visas, a fear that people on bridging visas will not be able to pay the rent (particularly those who do not have work rights), discrimination generally towards people seeking asylum and a belief that people on bridging visas are only staying temporarily and will break the lease. As one service provider in South Australia described: “People on bridging visas are in a very difficult situation because the Australian people do not have enough information about their situation and so are uneasy and less inclined to offer them housing.”

Low income

The issue of housing affordability highlighted in Section 5.1.1 undoubtedly impacts people seeking asylum living in the community more acutely because of their very low incomes and/or lack of work rights. At the time of RCOA’s consultations, a very large number of people were living in the community on bridging visas without work rights and with income entitlements equivalent to 89% of Centrelink Special Benefit or Youth Allowance (roughly $220 per week and for adults and $185 for young people aged 18-21). One participant working with community-based people seeking asylum also reported that some clients had to survive for significant periods of time with virtually no income:

These are often people who are in the process of lodging [a protection visa application], so once they’ve lodged which could take a month or six weeks, they’re then waiting six weeks for an ASAS assessment and another month for that to be approved. So we’re looking at people who, for three or four months, aren’t going to have any stable source of income and be reliant on our emergency fund.

Having such a low income, or even no income, limits even further the already limited housing options available to people seeking asylum. As one service provider frankly described:

A real estate agent will look at the income of the person and then they’ll look at the cost of property. If [the rent] is actually three-quarters of their income, they know that they can’t afford that and it’s going to be an unsuccessful tenancy. They won’t get the property. They’ve got to pay for electricity as well, they’ve got to buy food and god help them if they need clothing or medication. It’s not sustainable and the real estate agents will knock them back just on that. If you’re only getting $240 [per week] and your rent is $170, it’s simple. You’re not going to get a sustainable tenancy. If they have to go to the doctor and there’s no bulk billing, then the rent’s not going to be paid and the real estate agents know that.

On such low incomes and without the possibility of finding work, many people seeking asylum on bridging visas are forced into the most precarious kinds of housing arrangements or homelessness. One service provider in New South Wales, for example, reported a real estate agent recently saying they didn’t want to put people into a property where more than half of their income was going towards the rent. If this were the case among all housing providers, then people on bridging visas without work rights would need to find somewhere to live where rent was under $110 or $90 per week, an unrealistic amount in most private rental markets across Australia. As simply put by one participant in Western Australia:

Anyone who doesn’t have access to full social security benefits and full working rights, they are at the mercy of other people. It’s as simple as that. They can’t realistically hope to get reasonable, affordable, suitable accommodation. There’s no way you can do it.

The lack of work rights for people seeking asylum in the community was identified as particularly problematic in terms of housing, as there was no possibility for these people to increase their income or to reassure real estate agents of their reliability. In the words of one asylum seeker: “If we had a job and we were allowed to go and work, it would have been easier for us to find housing. It would be easier for the real estate agents to have us.” Another consultation participant in Western Australia said “if you don’t have working rights and only 89% of Centrelink benefits, who would take the risk to give you a house?”

Even where people seeking asylum have found somewhere to live, many people reported subsequent difficulties faced in sourcing household goods to furnish a property. Asylum seekers on bridging visas are not entitled to any household goods package or additional income to support them in setting up a house. With insufficient income payments, most were reliant on donations and charities to help them with household basics – mattresses to sleep on, basic furniture and cooking utensils. Many consultation participants spoke about the increasing pressure on charities that used to be able to provide support to people seeking asylum with household goods but were increasingly struggling to meet high numbers and needs.

Participants spoke of people seeking asylum sleeping in unfurnished houses on the floor (including one participant who said he knew of a person who had been sleeping on the floor for three months). As one asylum seeker in Sydney simply put it: “You’ve got nothing to sleep on and nothing to eat off.” At a consultation in Melbourne, another asylum seeker said that the house he was living in with five other people did not have a fridge: “When we buy food there is no fridge to put it in so all our money is being wasted on food. We are getting poisoned. We don’t need a bed off the floor; we just want a refrigerator.”

As with others on low incomes, people seeking asylum and the services working with them spoke about the enormous challenges of finding housing close to public transport and amenities. More affordable houses tend to be less accessible by public transport or more expensive to get to by public transport because of distance. For people seeking asylum on bridging visas, the challenge of transport was compounded because of their low incomes. For example, one asylum seeker in Sydney said: “In any week, I take $136. When I look at a house, I have to take $6 for the bus and $6 for the train.” Another participant said she spent two months searching for somewhere to live, mostly travelling by foot to inspect properties because she could not afford the public transport costs. As a result, she had sustained an injury.

Limitations of service provision models

Some of the housing challenges and issues faced by people seeking asylum living in the community relate to the limitations of Federally-funded service models. The following is a snapshot of the funded service supports for people seeking asylum in the community:

  • Community Assistance Support (CAS) Transitional: Provides short-term support to people seeking asylum in their transition from immigration detention to the community, generally for up to six weeks. It helps people settle in the community by ensuring they are financially independent and able to access necessary community services. Initial short-term accommodation is provided during this time, usually in boarding houses, motels or converted hostels. Income support is capped at 89% of the Special Benefit rate.
  • CAS: CAS administers a range of services which focus on the wellbeing of people who hold bridging visas and are particularly vulnerable and/or have complex needs. CAS provides help to people seeking asylum by arranging access to health and welfare services, providing financial assistance, assisting people to secure short-term accommodation and providing additional case management to resolve their immigration status. Most people seeking asylum living in the community are not eligible for CAS.
  • Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS): Provides limited financial assistance to Protection visa applicants who satisfy specific eligibility criteria. Recipients of ASAS may receive additional financial assistance to access necessary health care and to cover some of the costs associated with the processing of their application for a Protection Visa. ASAS also facilitates some limited casework assistance. Income support is capped at 89% of the Special Benefit rate. Housing support is not covered under ASAS.

In terms of service models, a particular concern raised was that people seeking asylum on bridging visas who had not secured housing after six weeks in CAS Transitional were able to be exited into homelessness. Indeed, a number of people seeking asylum who participated in consultations expressed concern that they had not or would not be able to find somewhere to live within six weeks and could end up homeless. In Brisbane, one person said: “We applied for every house that they have and have inspected all properties. We have only eight days left, what will happen to us?” This concern was echoed by an asylum seeker in Melbourne:

When I will go from here, I don’t have any idea. All we can do is fill in the forms and apply but we didn’t get any response from any of them. Personally, after this Thursday, I don’t have any idea where I could go… One of my friends was not able to find a house and for two nights he was sleeping on the streets.

A service provider in Western Australia described the situation as follows:

With the CAS Transition program, with people having six weeks of emergency accommodation, there is huge pressure in that time period to take anything that’s offered to you. Because at six weeks and one day, you’re sleeping on the street. What we find is that people will accept anything or overcrowd or do what they can, then at three months on, there’ll be breakdown, they’ll be homeless again and they’ll have used up their bond and advance rent already.

In addition, the CAS Transitional program is considered a “light touch” model, with limited resources and capacity to provide the kind of housing support that is most effective. Those in ASAS also do not have access to casework support to find housing. As one service provider stated: “Housing is not part of our job in ASAS and there’s not much that we can do for clients. It is putting too much pressure on us because we are supposed to be dealing with other issues but we can’t just tell them to go off by themselves.”

Other consultation participants felt that asylum seeker support services lacked the capacity to provide one-on-one housing support that was likely to be more effective (and necessary) in securing housing for people with complex needs. Across the country, consultation participants spoke about the high client-to-worker ratios of services funded to provide support to people seeking asylum in the community.

As one consultation participant said of funded CAS Transitional services: “I don’t think this is because the housing support workers aren’t doing a good job. It’s just that there are too many people so they are overwhelmed and can’t provide the level of support to each person that is needed.” Others reported that they did not have enough staff hours to fully support clients just in applying for housing, let alone assisting with other needs (such as sourcing household goods). As one participant said: “We are not funded for these extra activities, such as finding clients a fridge. There is a lot that can be sourced for free but it still requires time and workers to organise”.

Inadequate transition support

A number of issues were raised by consultation participants about the transitions that people seeking asylum living in the community go through in terms of policy and programs and the impact on housing. For those who are transferred from immigration detention into the community on bridging visas, the pressure to transition from short-term accommodation provided through the CAS Transitional program into longer-term accommodation within six weeks can place people in extremely vulnerable positions. Similar challenges are faced by people seeking asylum moving from supported transitional housing to independent living in the private market. As one service provider in New South Wales explained:

We’re doing transition all the time and it is so hard. The longer someone is with you, the harder it is. When you’ve provided that wrap-around service, the dependency on you as a service is huge, so it’s just trying to break that and help people to understand that they can do it, they can live on their own.

Others spoke about the pressure on services to transition people who may not be ready because of the huge demand on services. As one service provider put it: “[We are] trying to transition people out of our accommodation quicker, because the knocks at the door are getting more and more frequent… The wait lists are getting longer and longer.”

Even where an asylum seeker is granted a permanent protection visa, consultation participants spoke about the ongoing challenges for this group (including young people transitioning from community detention on to a permanent Protection Visa) because they are not eligible for HSS due to having spent time living in the community. These people miss out on both the basic household goods package that can help someone set up their home for the future as well as on basic tenancy training and orientation to the Australian housing market provided through the HSS program. As one service provider in the Northern Territory explained: “They often rely on their community for information, having not gone through HSS and this information is not always accurate.”

Cross-cutting issues

While most feedback on issues and challenges focused specifically on housing, some consultation participants also noted that service provision in other areas could impact on the capacity of humanitarian entrants to secure housing. Lack of or limited access to English language tuition, inadequate employment support services, difficulties in obtaining recognition of overseas qualifications and lack of access to subsidised transport were all nominated as issues which could indirectly pose barriers to securing housing.

A service provider working with people seeking asylum in Sydney, for example, noted that many clients could not afford to attend property inspections because they could not afford public transport costs. A specialist housing service argued that increased access to English classes would make is easier for people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds to access housing services. Another service provider from Western Australia highlighted the knock-on effects of being unable to secure recognition of overseas qualifications: “If those things are not resolved easily, it’s very hard for people to find jobs and that also leads to housing problems. If they don’t have jobs, they will become homeless…They are interconnected. One affects the other.”

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