Homeless family who lost almost all their possessions in Victoria floods denied relief funds

A homeless family who were keeping everything they owned in a shipping container in Rochester have been rejected from flood relief funding despite the recent disaster destroying all their possessions.

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Jess Jeffery, 27, her partner, Aaron, and their young son had been living in the garage attached to her mum’s house about 25 minutes’ drive out of Rochester while they looked for rental properties.

About $15,000 worth of furniture and belongings they had stored in a shipping container in Rochester was destroyed in the recent floods, but because they have no fixed address, they have been excluded from receiving any flood relief from the state government, Jeffery said.

“For the last eight months, we’ve been basically without our own home. We’ve been living in Tongala with my mother,” she said.

“When we moved into my mum’s, everything went into storage in Rochester.”

In early October, almost the whole town was decimated by floods, leaving one person dead, and hundreds of homes inundated.

Jeffery is on the disability support pension and her partner works part-time. They lost almost everything they owned in the container.

“All our furniture got destroyed; the water was sitting in there for four days. We’ve lost clothes, my son’s lost toys, kitchenware, a pram, treasured memories from childhood like collectible bears,” she said.

“It’s tearing me apart.”

The only help Jeffery has been able to get is vouchers from the Salvation Army – worth $350 for the whole family. Without emergency funding, the family have no idea how they will replace their belongings.

“I’ve applied for the funding through the DHHS website, and I told them our entire situation,” Jeffery said.

“I was told we should do it … but we aren’t eligible.”

To date, the department has made more than 22,724 payments to flood-affected residents totalling $18.6m. People who apply for the payments must prove they live in a flood-affected address by showing some form of identification.

Services Australia is administering the commonwealth’s one-off relief payment of $1,000 per adult, and despite Jeffery being on the DSP, they have not been able to access that either.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing said they would contact the family to offer assistance.

“We are working hard to get flood-affected Victorians the help and support they need, including with Personal Hardship Assistance Program payments,” the spokesperson said.

“The department will contact this family to seek options for support that might best fit their personal circumstances.”

Jeffery says with the weather warming up, the garage at her mum’s house has become unliveable. The family have applied for more than 30 rental properties in the last month across the central north area, but they have not heard back from any. They are currently staying in a motel, but cannot afford to live there for much longer.

“We have a dog and toddler – two little messes. That turns people off having us,” she said.

“I’m putting all of this in the rental application but it’s like they don’t give a shit. The toll it takes continuously being knocked back, what it does, is just unreal.

“Then to have the floods on top of it, that was the last thing I needed to deal with.”

Mike Phillips, state manager for housing at VincentCare, the specialised housing provider for St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria, said there was a shortage of housing in the area before the floods.

“For example, in Shepparton in mid-2022, there were more than 2,000 approved eligible people on the Victorian Housing Register,” Phillips said.

“People who were already listed on the VHR will now be in competition with anyone displaced by the flooding, adding to that pressure.

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“Those who are particularly vulnerable, have specific needs or low incomes, are most likely to struggle to find suitable accommodation. Those who had been longtime renters in flood-affected properties may find the reality of current rental prices in any available private rental properties a shock.”

Jeffery was put on the waitlist for the Victorian Housing Register but was told it would be four years until they were offered a home.

The chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Jenny Smith, said to meet demand across the state the Victorian government would need to invest in 60,000 social housing properties statewide over the next 10 years – especially in areas that are prone to natural disasters.

“This shows exactly why Victoria needs more social housing, with an immediate priority placed on building homes in affected areas like Shepparton and the northern region of the state.

“The state government has provided money to meet people’s immediate accommodation needs.

“But damaged homes, damaged social housing, and damaged emergency accommodation won’t come back on board for months or years. We need to learn from this experience and make sure we are much better prepared for our next natural disaster.”