By Robert Monks
A combination of higher expenses in education, rising rent prices and a shortage of affordable accommodation in Newcastle has hit many students hard in the city. The fact that Newcastle has a very high rate of unemployment also makes it tough for students trying to find work. Hidden homelessness such as ‘couch surfing’ is on the rise, and students are now feeling more insecure and trapped by their economic circumstances than ever.
Matthew Morgan, a business student at the University of Newcastle, who is also on the Student Council and president of the Queer Collective, knows a lot about this issue. This sensitive and intelligent young Aboriginal man talks about his own experiences trying to find an affordable place to live.
“I moved here last year and I couldn’t get a place so I lived in a garage for $125 a week in Merewether and after that I was homeless and I stayed at the Hamilton place (a budget hostel with dormitory accommodation) a couple of weeks and then I found a friend who had a room at her house and that’s how I got accommodation.”
His voice is steady and soft but there are occasional reflective pauses as he speaks and a sadness appears in his dark eyes. “I had to couch surf about eight times. I fell into depression and if it wasn’t for the counselling services of the university, I would have ended up on the street.”
Student allowances have not kept up with living costs. “Every student on Centrelink gets $600 a fortnight, close to that. Everyone is looking for rent that’s $150 a week or under so they can have at least $300 to live off for two weeks,” Matthew says. “A lot of students here come from disadvantaged backgrounds so the majority are on Abstudy or Youth Allowance. You try living on that and have $298 to live on for two weeks.”
The fact that rent prices are rising in Newcastle and there is a shortage of affordable housing for students is adding to the crisis. “Just searching for a place can be an ordeal,” Matthew says. “The market is so competitive because everyone’s looking so you don’t just have a chance.”
Matthew’s comments are supported by current research. According to Anglicare Australia’s rental affordability snapshot in 2013, “Newcastle and the Hunter are among the worst places to look for low-cost housing.” It found ‘‘minimal’’ housing in Newcastle for people on the $606 weekly minimum wage and that applies as well to students on other benefits.
The price of food and transport also adds to students’ financial stress. Public transport in Newcastle is expensive and is limited in the outer suburbs near the university where many students live. “You keep taking that money out to go to uni every day and it just goes,” says Matthew.
He says there are students who have added problems in getting accommodation. There are Indigenous students and some non-Indigenous students from remote communities like Cowra or Burke, or places in Queensland who are not familiar with the process of getting accommodation. For instance, they don’t know how to go about getting a bond or signing a lease for a house.
“People have come here for a specialised degree at the University of Newcastle and they just have no idea how to engage in getting accommodation so it’s quite a struggle for them,” Matthew says. As a result, some of these students end up couch surfing. He says that although there is housing specifically for Indigenous students, it is usually full.
Another student who understands these issues is Clare Swan, the president of the Students’ Association. Her schedule is busy as she is studying part-time for her Masters and she is also working.
Clare is reflective and composed in her manner but there is a quiet indignation in her voice. She says that many students live below the poverty line. “It’s really quite a dire situation and we know Centrelink payments for youth allowance is below the poverty line. Students are not getting nearly enough money, even if they can get Centrelink, and a lot can’t,” she says.
Textbooks alone are expensive. “It can easily be $500 a semester if you are a full-time student.” Due to these mounting costs some students have moved from full-time to part-time study, including Clare. “I can’t afford to do full-time.”
Many students try to find work to support themselves. However, this is not exactly easy as the Hunter Region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Hunter Valley’s unemployment rate was 10.1 per cent in April, a fall from 12.8 per cent in March. Newcastle and Lake Macquarie’s unemployment was unchanged at 8.1 per cent. That compares with the state result of 5.8 percent.
Couch surfing may sound harmless but Clare says it is “inherently unsafe for women” who do not have privacy or their own space. Lack of privacy is an issue for everyone. “You don’t have a place to store your own food. You are living day to day,” she says. Also as many couch surfers fear being kicked out if they stay too long, they don’t want to intrude on the other people who live there. “You try to make yourself as small as possible,” she says.
Clare’s voice registers sadness when she talks about her own difficulties finding suitable housing. She says, “I didn’t have my own secure housing and I stayed with a boyfriend and he was wonderful but there was no workstation, I didn’t have a desk to do my own assignments.”
Tonkoh Kamara is a Sudanese youth worker with a lot of experience working with students from non-English speaking backgrounds, especially African students. Tonkoh says young African students who are unemployed may not have enough finances to rent a house and in some instances “they just give up hope”. The fact that there are housing shortages and “rents are on the rise again” in Newcastle just adds to the problem, he says.
The fact that the African communities are much smaller in Newcastle means the students have an effective e network. “If you do not have the right network to get a better job and you have to rely on youth allowance, you are in for big trouble,” he says.
Another cultural issue is that African students who are not confident speaking in English often don’t approach welfare services. “They are not that confident talking about issues and their knowledge of things in Australia is very limited,” he says.
There are students who are educated and may have learnt English before coming to Australia but there are others who are not literate in their own language. “Some who have never been to school will be struggling and the struggle will be compounded if they have to couch surf,” he says.
Tonkoh thinks the situation has reached crisis point and that government intervention is crucial. He says, “Subsidised housing will help as will building more student accommodation at state or council level.” Matthew Morgan thinks more targeted services are needed. “Newcastle doesn’t offer services for students to get quality accommodation or if there is accommodation, it’s already full.” Clare Swan says, “We need more temporary accommodation, especially more short term accommodation for women.”