A WAGGA mother living out of a tent with her three children has described the experience as "heartless" amid a snowballing rental crisis.
Amanda Cain has been living without a fixed roof over her and her children's heads since March now and, as winter fast approaches, she fears things will only get worse. The latest federal budget announcement of $1.62 billion toward the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement has fuelled the fire as social housing providers claim the minimal increase on last year is contributing to cases like Ms Cain's.
"I went through a divorce last year, and we owned our own home together so had to sell it," Ms Cain said.
The once-full-time nurse lost her job in the process as the COVID-19 pandemic peaked and after staying with a friend temporarily, had to leave and begin the daily search for a new home to rent. Ms Cain said she has been applying for houses every day, with "more than 500 applications made since March".
"I go into the real estate agencies, tell them my situation, and yet the houses available are still being given to other people, couples with no children or people with job security," she said.
"They just look down their noses at me because I'm not currently working, but I have worked full-time my whole life until now.
"I understand where they're coming from, but the thing is I have the money there for a bond, I have savings and am now on the pension, and as soon as I have a home I will be able to get a job again."
Currently living out of her car and in a tent, shifting between free camping grounds in and around Wagga, Ms Cain said she has been unable to secure work without a fixed address, and the issue is only compounded by her limited ability to leave their living set-up with no security and the risk of her belongings being stolen.
With such high demand, the cost to rent has skyrocketed, and Ms Cain said it has become impossible to compete with people outbidding one another.
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"It's unfair, it shouldn't be allowed because everyone deserves a home, a warm place to sleep at night," she said. "I go to inspections like everyone else, but I always feel like it's a wasted effort because it inevitably goes to someone else every time, it just feels heartless, like Aussies are losing their empathy."
Feeling like the "squeaky wheel waiting to be noticed", the Wagga mum had also tried reaching out for social housing.
"I was told I basically had to suck it up for three months because the waiting list is so long, their services are bombarded after the bushfires and COVID-19, and I can understand that but it doesn't make this any easier," she said.
Social and affordable housing in NSW is funded by a combination of state and federal resources. Families like Ms Cain's are in need of more funding from the federal government, according to industry experts like Wagga St Vincent de Paul president Peter Burgess.
"There's a real shortfall," Mr Burgess said. "When I look at the budget and at what the federal government's approach has been over the past 12 months, they've spent a lot on infrastructure, but very little has been spent on social housing for the people who need it most."
Mr Burgess pointed out the growing waitlist for social housing in Wagga, currently sitting at 400, is not only pushing vulnerable people into a housing market they can't afford but has ramifications for families beyond no roof over their heads.
For Ms Cain one fallout is not being able to get her children, one due to start high school and one in kindergarten, enrolled in a public school without a fixed address.
"They don't have a zone, so they haven't been to school since March either and I'm worried about their education," she said.
"Apparently if I want to get them into a school without a zone, they have to have this 10-week program where someone comes out to us, but then when we do finally find a place to live, we might have to uproot them anyway if it's in a different zone."
Feeling "alone, chewed up and spat out", Ms Cain is at her wit's end, and she's not the only one.
In Wagga securing a rental has never been more difficult, with house prices up 8.6 per cent in the last 12 months and rental vacancies at a low of 0.6 per cent as of February.
This month, Anglicare's annual survey of rental costs found Wagga had just one property listed that was "affordable" for an unemployed couple with children, and the social housing wait list hasn't shrunk in years.
Anglicare national director Kasy Chambrays said the investment from the federal government fell short of the need, pointing out constructing or renewing social housing stock could have been an investment in social welfare, and in the economy.
"What people are on at that lower end and the rent prices is such a mismatch it's farcical and there was nothing in the budget to prevent, tackle or underpin the struggle we have at the moment," she said. "We would have hoped to see a down payment into some long-term social housing planning that would deliver economic stimulus. There is an easy two for one that the government could have got."
The Salvation Army provides housing relief and services in some regional centres, but currently doesn't have the resources to deliver housing outcomes in Wagga. Its state manager for homelessness, Captain Brad McIver, agreed that significant federal funding is vital to solving the problem of limited social housing, and availability of any affordable rentals.
"In places like Wagga where vacancy is so limited and prices are so high it makes a homelessness to housing continuum almost impossible [and] there needs to be a very targeted effort from the federal government to achieve that," he said.
Everybody's Home spokesperson Kate Colvin said without more federal involvement, social and affordable housing shortages simply won't be solved.
"Only the federal government has the fiscal power to meet the shortfall of social housing nationally," she said. "Across the investment the federal government has made in the budget, the missing piece is social housing."
Riverina MP and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said state and territory governments were primarily responsible for funding housing, and argued the budget had invested funds in rent assistance and other housing measures including support for single parents, home buyers and tax incentives for investment into affordable housing.
"I appreciate there is always more that can be done to deliver desired outcomes for social housing and the federal government will continue to monitor the situation and to assist state and territory governments to address this important issue," Mr McCormack said.
Federal Minister for Housing Michael Sukkar did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms Cain has called for a greater understanding of homelessness and a more meaningful course of action by politicians and services when it comes to getting people off the streets.
"Homelessness should be looked at as an urgent matter, an emergency, you can't just blame it on the market at the moment," she said. "People need to stop categorising the homeless too, we aren't all drug addicts, alcoholics or people suffering from mental illnesses, some of us are just struggling because of the times we live in and situations beyond our control. It isn't always someone's fault, we don't all have a choice."
Describing her experience as "demoralising and daunting", Ms Cain begged for an end to her living situation.
"I've done everything right, but I feel like I'm still in the wrong somehow, like I'm falling on spikes at the end of every day," she said.
"It's a vicious cycle of getting your hopes up only to have them quickly dashed again. The lack of empathy people have is awful, I wish people realised that a bit of compassion can change someone's day enormously."
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