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Emma has a job, yet she is homeless: 'It's debilitating'

Emma’s story is just one example of Australia’s hidden homeless problem.

A composite image of homeless woman Emma Lenz by herself on a rural property and with her kids.
Emma Lenz has shared her story of homelessness to help others in the same situaiton. (Source: Provided)

Emma Lenz owns her own gardening business in Queensland, she is a mum of two and volunteers for the Rural Fire Service (RFS). On paper she is the definition of an average working Aussie, and yet she is still homeless.

Emma grew up in Sydney for most of her life but, after splitting from her husband and struggling with ever-rising rent prices, a friend suggested moving to the Darling Downs in Queensland.

“I was like, ‘Yes, I can get here, I can raise my kids’. I looked online and there were 60 houses available to rent, all for around $250 per week,” Emma told Yahoo Finance.

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Emma said for a while things were great, but then rent increases started sneaking into that region as well, and soon she was “booted out” after the landlord sought to increase her rent.

After that, Emma jumped around, from share-houses to single rooms for rent in other people’s homes, but the same price increases came up again and again.

Things got so dire that Emma was considering living in the shed at the RFS station where she volunteered. But, in a stroke of kindness, her brigade officer offered for her rent-free accommodation in a caravan on his property.

Having a job does not save you from homelessness

While Emma volunteers at the RFS she also owns her own gardening business in the Darling Downs.

Her job allows her to work while her kids are in school, and be an active parent after school hours. Her son also has autism and requires some extra care, so the flexible hours are a necessity.

“When my ex-partner has the kids, I can work more hours and earn more money but, at the moment, I work as often as I can and still only make around $35,000 a year,” Emma said.

“I could make a lot more money, but having a son with autism costs me around $40,000 a year in lost wages.”

Common story

Mission Australia CEO Sharon Callister told Yahoo Finance Emma’s story was one they encountered all the time, and that even Aussies working full time couldn’t afford soaring rents.

“If you're on a very low wage, or you're on income support, then you've got like less than 1 per cent chance of being able to afford the private rental market,” Callister said.

“And it's not just in the capital cities, there are plenty of regional areas as well where rents are exploding.”

Someone working full time on the minimum wage will only earn $46,000 per year after the most recent increase, and a person is considered to be in rental stress when they spend 30 per cent or more of their income on their housing.

“Who do you know who could afford a place earning under $46,000 a year? It’s just becoming really impossible.”

It costs a lot to be homeless

Emma said the notion that homeless people were “lazy” or “choose to be the poorest in society” was ridiculous and, in fact, she had to spend a lot of money.

“The fact that I can only get a six-month lease is debilitating for my mental health but it’s also really expensive,” she said.

“Every six months I had to pay around $700 for a removalist, and then the money for the bond, plus two weeks rent. You do all that, just to be kicked out again six months later when they want to raise the rent.

“That instability has been a major factor for me not wanting to go back to renting. We need an inquiry into the rental market because giving renters six-month leases and then moving them on comes at a massive cost to the tenants.”

Social housing not a solution for everyone

Emma is among a group of Aussies too well-off to be in social housing, but not well-off enough to afford soaring rent prices.

“The first thing they ask you when you seek social housing is, ‘Can you sort yourself out?’ And I can, I have a job and I can work and I am very resilient. There are so many people worse off than I am,” Emma said.

“Social housing is so limited. They’re dealing with the very bottom 1 per cent. So there is a massive gap of people that just don’t qualify. We've basically been abandoned by the government and we've been left at the mercy of real estate agents, and that's not OK.”

Callister said 50 per cent of the people who came to Mission Australia for help were already homeless and they could only help around one in three secure long-term housing options.

“Because of the lack of social or affordable housing and the private rental market being extortionate, we can’t provide help to everyone,” she said.

“But, if people are able to come to us prior to becoming homeless, we have a 94 per cent chance of ensuring they have long-term housing. It is possible to fix homelessness in Australia, but we need more resources that are going toward prevention.

“We've been able to demonstrate that if we can work with landlords or we can work individually with people to understand why they're at risk of being homeless, we have time to do something about it. But if you're already out on the streets - whether it's rough sleeping, crisis accommodation, motels, caravan parks, couchsurfing, all those things - it's very, very hard to get back into long-term, stable accommodation.”

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