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Homeless and bereft – the desperate plight of asylum seekers

Major Karen Elkington (fourth from left) with members of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA).

Major Karen Elkington has been managing The Salvation Army’s Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service in Melbourne for the past 13 years. As a member of the Refugee Council of Australia delegation to a Parliamentary Friends of Refugees event at Parliament House in Canberra, she spoke during National Homelessness Week about the desperate plight of asylum seekers.


The phone rings at The Salvation Army Asylum Seeker Centre. The person calling is a man seeking asylum who is in hospital and has no Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) payment.

Prior to being in hospital, he was sleeping under a bridge. A cyclist collided with him and injured his leg. The man is desperate – he has had surgery, is about to be released from hospital and can’t walk. “Can you get me a wheelchair?” he pleads, “And somewhere to live?”

Captain Karen Elkington with members of RCOA and independent senator Lidia Thorpe (back row, second from left).

The most we can do is drop into the hospital with changes of clothing, some toiletries, a suitcase for him to pack a few belongings into and for our chaplain to spend time with him to provide pastoral support.

After speaking with the Refugee Health Network, they advocate for the man to be transferred to rehab where he will remain until he can at least walk with the assistance of crutches. After he leaves rehab it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. Sadly, no one can house him because it’s impossible to support people with long-term housing when they have no income.

Emergency relief is not enough

We have another family who comes to us for assistance. They have no SRSS payment and the small church housing organisation that has been paying the family’s rent for the past year is no longer able to do so, as they simply do not have the funds.

Enquiries are made to many housing providers and the advice is the same. It’s impossible to house people without an income. It’s impossible to ask faith-based and other community service organisations to keep on paying people’s rent, as there is simply not enough money for charities to pay rent for them indefinitely.

Major Karen Elkington at Parliament House where she was part of a RCOA delegation during National Homelessness Week (7-13 August).

The Salvos’ Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service in Melbourne speciality is assisting people seeking asylum with financial assistance in the form of vouchers and material aid. We help with food, clothing, toiletries, children’s toys and cleaning products.

During the COVID years, we received additional emergency relief funding which was appreciated by us and the community. However, at the present time, our funding has returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The Emergency Relief system is designed to help people through short-term emergencies. However, the people we see are living in dire poverty, and a food voucher from an Emergency Relief organisation is not enough for them to purchase food, medication, and to pay their utility bills or rent.

People without incomes or lacking Medicare or work rights cannot survive on Emergency Relief food vouchers, and charities often rely on donated food to support those in need. Most Emergency Relief agencies have non-perishable pantry food items which we box up and give to people to tide them over for a couple of days.

Our families are telling us they struggle to provide themselves and their children with enough fresh fruit and vegetables. The best we can do is pick up rescued food in partnership with Coles Second Bite. The food varies in quality. Sometimes there is a lot of it; other days it’s mostly bags of bread.

Many of our families without income go from one food charity to another for support. Some are very unwell, suffering mental health conditions and physical health problems. Some have told us their children are being treated at the Royal Children’s Hospital for malnutrition. All of them rely on community support to survive.

Homelessness dilemma

More and more of them are at risk of being homeless as charities struggle to raise the funds to pay for people’s rents on an ongoing basis.

The Salvation Army’s Homelessness Services are not set up to support people seeking asylum who have no income, and they do not have the resources to continuously house people seeking asylum. The Salvos can only support people with housing for a brief time, depending on funding.

Put simply, a person on an SRSS payment, if they become homeless, has a greater chance of accessing mainstream homelessness support services. Whilst people remain without an SRSS payment they will continue to couch-surf, sleep in cars or sleep rough.

To summarise, housing, feeding, providing medical care and assistance with utility bills is beyond any charity to provide long-term. Housing people without Centrelink or any asylum seeker SRSS payment is near to impossible.

We in the charitable and community services sector call upon the Federal Government to change the system so people seeking asylum can at least survive and at best thrive.


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