As part of Anti-Poverty Week, on October 21 and 22, Anti-Poverty Network South Australia hosted Power To The Poor — Silent No More, a two-day conference devoted to the attacks faced by welfare recipients in Australia — sole parents, unemployed people, age and disability pensioners, carers, and others — and opportunities for pushing back.
WENDY, a job-seeker in her late 50s, spoke about her experiences as an older unemployed person. Below she was interviewed by PAS FORGIONE from Anti-Poverty Network SA.
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Until a few years ago, you were working in a relatively well-paid, high-skilled job. Tell us about what happened when you were made redundant.
At first I was confident that I would find another job fairly quickly because I have some good qualifications with lots of experience in a wide range of different fields.
However, it quickly became frighteningly obvious that the job market had drastically changed since the last time I had been in the market for a job and things were looking extremely grim.
The Newstart payment was less than half my rent, so it was impossible to manage and I ended up living in my car, and my weight dropped from 47kg to less than 35kg.
Living in my car also meant it was extremely difficult to take proper care of my personal hygiene, which also had a detrimental effect on my health, and attending job interviews in this condition became completely futile.
During this time I became suicidal and made several serious attempts to end my life, but was found before I could achieve the final result. I was forced to see a psychologist and put on anti-depressants but this has not helped at all and has not solved or prevented my desire to end my life.
How much support did you receive from Centrelink and welfare services while homeless?
I had no help at all from Centrelink and found they had no sympathy for my situation. Even when it was visibly obvious I had lost a significant amount of weight and my health was suffering, they were relentless in their demands for me to jump through every hoop they put in front of me.
I did manage to get some food assistance from several local charities and had some financial assistance to pay some outstanding bills, but once I became homeless even that became too difficult to access at times. I sent out emails to every organisation I could possibly find in the hope of finding some help with accommodation and was rejected by all but one.
This was a government-funded program called the Aged Homeless Program — Homelessness Strategy. I was amazed to receive a reply from them as I was not even going to bother to send them an email because I thought I was not old enough to qualify.
The lady who responded to my email was the most helpful and supportive person I had met since the day I lost my job. She wrote a letter of recommendation for me to get emergency accommodation and helped me to secure a bond, then got a truck to move all my furniture at no cost to me.
I have now been in the house this lady helped me to get for three years. However, I am still under constant threat of eviction every time my payments are stopped, because I fall behind in the rent and need to get a financial counsellor to negotiate a payment plan to catch up every time it happens.
What have your experiences been like with job agencies?
I have found the majority of the people who I have had to deal with in the job agencies have been completely heartless. A few good people were very supportive and I hoped I could continue with them, but these people never seem to last very long in these places. I feel too intimidated to defend myself for fear of having my payments cut again.
I have no idea how they can possibly expect people to succeed at anything when they are treated this way and they completely shred your self-esteem and confidence and make you feel like every effort you make is less than futile and you may as well be smashing your head against a brick wall because that would be less painful than dealing with them.
My caseworker at the job network office has told me to delete all my qualifications, skills and experience from my CV because I am overqualified and I should only be applying for cleaning or labouring/factory work.
I have now stopped declaring all of my job-search efforts to my caseworker and I make sure I apply for the minimum number of cleaning or labouring/factory jobs just to satisfy my obligations and only tell her about those.
Have you received any negative comments or judgements while being unemployed?
I frequently get people telling me that I simply cannot be trying hard enough and that surely with my qualifications I should be able to find something. They assume that I must simply prefer to not work. I quickly lost contact with most of my friends and family and now only have regular contact with my daughter and one long-term very trusted and valued friend.
My sister has blocked my phone number and refused to speak to me for more than two years because she said I am intentionally not even looking for work and making no effort to resolve my situation. I have not seen or spoken to my brother in more than a year because he tried to get me a job in the factory where he works, but I did not pass the medical. My brother was furious, saying that he had put his own job on the line by recommending me and accused me of failing the medical on purpose.
What has been your experience of job-searching?
I did manage to get a few interviews in the first year, but even the ones that I thought went really well did not get back to me. In the past three years I have not had a single job interview and no response to any of my applications, despite sending out at least 10 applications every single day.