Living on $40 a day: four stories of Newstart in the NSW Hunter region

COULD you live on $40 a day? That's the reality for the 723,000 Australians on the Newstart Allowance.

Despite growing pressure to increase the payment by $75 a week, the federal government has ruled out any changes, saying it is focused on job creation.

This week, the Newcastle Herald spoke to four Newstart recipients who discussed the emotional strain of their financial hardship.

"I ended up on the street. I slept in my car for a week. I was scared outside. I parked in Waratah next to the police station," said 51-year-old Majlinda Maroulis.

Melissa McDonnell, 50, said she'd applied for 100 jobs in the past nine months she's been on Newstart and got three interviews.

"Struggling to make ends meet has affected my relationships, family and friends, and taken a good chunk of my health too," Len Thomas said.

Dean Waters, 27, was homeless for two months earlier this year.

Len Thomas, 40

Len Thomas of Bar Beach, 40, has been on and off Newstart payments for 15 years. He was one of around 100 men who had to find new accommodation last year when City of Newcastle closed down Aaron Buman's two boarding houses.

"Before that I was in a six-year relationship which ended ... I ended up trying to take my own life, and spent a few months in hospital. The social worker got me a spot in the boarding house. I was there for about nine months.

"I'm still here, I pulled through and I'm slowly getting back on my feet."

Mr Thomas says that from when he left school, at the age of 16, he had continuous employment as a laborer and fruit picker. Then the "bricks started falling out of the wall".

"My father passed away when I was 26, I started drinking fairly heavily and lost my labouring job because of that. I've been on and off Newstart in one form or another ever since."

He says in that time he has worked for between 50 and 60 employers but has never been able to find a position lasting longer than eight months.

"Just a lot of little jobs, some cash in hand, some casual. I think if I'd stuck out school, got my HSC and got one qualification I would have had that lifelong career we all strive for. Under the circumstances, I've taken any job that I can."

Mr Thomas said that due to improvements in the employment services providers associated with Newstart over the past two years, he is now more hopeful than ever of finding permanent work.

"I think they have gotten a lot better. They are taking a tailored approach, and are a lot more focused on the health and wellbeing and retraining aspects of it.

"I'm down there every fortnight looking into work and courses. I want to get out of labouring and I'm looking into courses in maritime services.

"I've been sober for a year and a half now. And I'm the better for it."

Mr Thomas now lives in a public housing apartment, for which he pays $145 a fortnight. The rent comes directly out of his $556 fortnightly Newstart payment.

While he said "it would be good" if the payment increased, he suggested concession cards for groceries and utilities could be an alternative solution. Being assisted to find a bulk-billing doctor with whom he could make regular appointments would also reduce his medical costs, he said.

Majlinda Maroulis, 51

Majlinda Maroulis, 51, had been in her "dream job" for a year when she was in a head-on car crash, which she said has left her unable to work. Originally from Albania, Ms Maroulis began her working life in Australia in 1998 in her husband's fish and chip shop. When they divorced a decade later, she found work as a cleaner, took English classes and began training to become an aged care nurse.

She landed her first job as a nurse in a multilingual nursing home in 2015.

"I was living in Jesmond. I used to have a beautiful house," she said. "I was working very hard and I Ioved it."

The 2016 crash quickly changed her situation. She says it left her with debilitating pain in her neck, back and shoulders. She cannot lift her hands above her shoulders or move heavy items. Unable to report for work, her contract was terminated and she started receiving Newstart payments of $525 a fortnight.

Seeing that she was "way too short" to pay her rent she accepted offers to live with friends while fighting a green slip Insurance claim. Her situation came to a head in 2018 when the insurer stopped payments for physiotherapy and specialists. She also lost her accommodation in February.

"My friend in Newcastle was giving me support, but I saw it was very hard for her, I ended up on the street. I slept in my car for a week.

"I was scared outside. I parked in Waratah next to the police station."

Ms Maroulis' solicitor put her in touch with support services, including Nova for Women and Children refuge, and Ms Maroulis is now living in subsidised rental accommodation. She had her first appointment with the public John Hunter Pain Clinic on Wednesday.

"I'm so happy with that team," she said.

Ms Maroulis said the $365 she is left with after paying rent each fortnight is not enough to cover her car, solicitor, groceries and utilities, as well as outstanding debts. She has had to apply to use her superannuation under hardship.

"It's terrible. I don't understand this government," she said.

Ms Maroulis wants a job with "all her heart" but says she is uncertain about her employment prospects with her physical limitations and lack of computer skills.

"When you work your life is up. It's not just the money, it's communication with friends and colleagues. I think I have lost respect. I see people don't see me the same way."

Melissa McDonnell, 50 

Melissa McDonnell of Toronto is trying to re-enter the workforce after acting as a full-time carer for 18 months for her terminally ill uncle and undergoing a year of study. Prior to that, she was a receptionist at Sydney Dental Hospital.

The mother of two adult children has been on Newstart for the past nine months, and says it's the first time she has struggled to find a job since entering the workforce as a teenager.

When you work your life is up. It's not just the money, it's communication with friends and colleagues ... I see people don't see me the same way.

Majlinda Maroulis

"I have applied for over 100 jobs and I've got three interviews," Ms McDonnell said. "I think it's my age. You look at my work history and it goes back to 1988. They know I'm not a young person.

"I believe I've got excellent customer service skills because I've been doing it so long - as well as knowledge of Aboriginal health because I've got a lot of experience in that sector.

"I'm confident I will get a job because I'll keep applying. You've got to have that motivation, and I do," she said.

Ms McDonnell said she thought the provision of Newstart that mandates recipients apply for at least 20 jobs a month was a "good thing".

"You also have to connect up with a job service provider. It encourages people," she said.

However, Ms McDonnell said she did not agree with the level of payment. Since going on Newstart she has had to leave the studio apartment she was renting and board at a friend's place. Often, she said, she can only afford to have toasted sandwiches for dinner.

"It's not even living, you are struggling. I get $650 a fortnight and $240 of that goes to rent. Then I'm spending $100 or more on food, then you've got your bills."

Ms McDonnell is a Gamilaraay woman and said travelling to attend sorry business, as far north as the Queensland border, was another cost she had to put away for.

"If they raised the payment at least you could eat properly because no one on Newstart is eating well."

Ms McDonnell is particularly concerned about young people living on the payment.

"I really believe their situation is harder than someone my age because you've got your wisdom and you're older so you cope a bit better," she said.

"Mental health and food security are big problems, and there's also no job security for the young ones."

Dean Waters, 27

Dean Waters, 27, a father of two, has been on and off Newstart payments for six years. Last year, it looked like his situation was turning around but after losing a job, and going through a break up, he became homeless.

"I was building pumps for a mine. It was for about five months. I was casual. It was really good.

"The pumps were between 10 and 300 kilograms and one of them fell off the back of the ute and it smacked me in the knee. I had to take a week off. I told them I'd come back in on Monday, and they said don't bother.

"It took four months to get back on Centrelink, I was three months with no money."

"In February and March I was going from place to place. I really don't like asking for help so I would just spend the nights in the back of my car."

Mr Waters is now staying with his father in Hexham. He said he has found it nearly impossible to rent on Newstart in the past.

"I was on full Newstart plus rent assistance and that $600 just wasn't covering it. $300 a week is most places' rent. I got bills, fuel and I was living out at Merriwa, so it was an hour's drive into Muswellbrook just to get food," he said.

Mr Waters said he would like another job "as soon as possible".

"I've done lawn mowing, panel beating, spray painting, a bit of mechanics - I was car detailing at one point.

"There's just not a lot of work around because I dropped out of school early. I got half way through Year Nine and I was kicked out," he said.

"Because in my younger years I spent a lot of time in and out of refuges I was going to become a youth worker. Once I realised how much studying was involved, I thought I never did well studying.

"As long as I'm not in an office and I get to use my hands, I'm happy."

Mr Waters is now hoping to begin a mechanic apprenticeship. He has taught himself how to do repairs and modifies cars as a hobby.

"I have mates turn up and say, 'Something's wrong with my car, can you have look?' Centrelink frowns on cash-in-hand work so I'm like, alright, you either pay me in cigarettes or booze.

"I do spray painting, knocking out dints. I can fully install car stereos. Apart from my own car, I've probably repaired about 50 or 60.

"Because of my ADHD I'm really quick. I'm a fast learner. If I got into mechanics, it'd be sweet."

This story Living on $40 a day: four stories of Newstart first appeared on Newcastle Herald.