‘Worse than Struggle Street’: Life on welfare in Miller
COLIN Peckham rips the top off another can of TUN draught, takes a long drink and shuffles from the kitchen of his housing commission bedsit to the combination living and bedroom.
It's mid-morning and he's part-way through his daily 30 cans in the room where he lives alone.
The 51-year-old welfare recipient has been living in the depressed south-western Sydney suburb of Miller for 22 years.
Colin doesn't reckon he will still be there in another two decades.
"I reckon I've got about 10 years left in me," he says, "I could flip a coin.
"I'm an alcoholic.
"When I was 21 years old I was playing rugby league for Mt Pritchard. Second grade. But I hit the bottle too hard."
It's a sunny Tuesday and the streets of Miller are alive with people - some, like Colin, having a drink.
With the Federal Government poised to introduce tough new legislation to crack down on welfare recipients, fear and anger are rife in suburbs like this.
The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card) Bill 2017 proposes trialling an end to cash welfare payments, to cut back on recipients buying drugs or alcohol.
Every person approached by news.com.au in Miller said they were either on a disability pension or the dole.
They told news.com.au that Miller has been unfairly categorised as a welfare enclave.
Miller lies wedged between the postcodes in NSW, which have been identified as having the state's highest welfare incomes.
The neighbouring suburb of Lurnea is in postcode 2170, which has NSW's top annual welfare outlay of $378m.
To the north of Miller lies postcode 2770, with suburbs including Mount Druitt, Shalvey, Willmot and Lethbridge Park, where welfare dollars outstrip income tax paid by residents.
"I've lived in Mt Druitt, Campbelltown, Raby, Macquarie Fields," Colin tells news.com.au.
"Miller's the worst. I'd get in fights every day, but it's quietened down a lot."
Colin said he had been on welfare for years because he could no longer work due to injuries he sustained while working as a labourer.
"Digging holes for houses ... my back is f***ed, and my knees.
"I'm in constant pain."
Although he is "still at JobLink" and on social security benefits rather than a disability pension, Colin knows people on both.
And the threat of the Federal Government paying people on welfare via a cashless card "just won't work".
"If they don't pay people, they'll find another way. People will barter with it."
Another Sydney suburb, Blacktown, has the state's highest rate of welfare noncompliance - people who skip work-for-the-dole appointments or jobseeker interviews.
But Miller resident Donna Gooch, who gets around the streets of her suburb on a motorised wheelchair, says "it's Miller that always gets a bad rap".
"I love living here, but people say bad things about it," Ms Gooch tells news.com.au.
"There's the ice flats, but in rich suburbs they take cocaine and here people take ice.
"I don't like drugs, but this isn't the only place where you can get them."
Ms Gooch, 42, who suffers from Addison's disease, is on a disability pension.
The degenerative condition has seen her lose the use of her legs, and her sight and hearing deteriorate.
"I have three people to help me out each day to dress me and stuff, but we need more people out here and the NDIS doesn't supply enough social workers.
"There's a lot of elderly in this area, people with dementia and there's not enough money in a place like Miller.
"My daughter is my full-time carer. She's at TAFE and my son and his girlfriend live with me - he's a sheet metal worker.
"The ice flats, everyone is on welfare. But nearly everyone in my street works.
"But I will say with some people here in Miller, there's a lot of rorting the system."
Out in the square near the Miller Family and Community Services building, long necks of beer in brown paper bags are being drunk in the sunshine.
Peter, who didn't want his last name published, describes himself as "a chronic alcoholic". He says a welfare card "will only give rise to a black market".
"It will become currency," he says. "People will onsell it or use it to exchange groceries or whatever for cash.
"I'm on a disability pension but why shouldn't people have their own money?"
Another Miller disability pensioner, Trevor, who had polio as a child and now suffers post polio syndrome, is cared for by Andrew who has a back injury from a car accident.
They agreed that a welfare card system would be "easy to rort".
"You could buy something and then take it back and get a refund, or do all someone's shopping and get them top give you $100," Andrew said.
"The druggies up the street would still be getting their ice and their alcohol."
Trevor says the local drug problem gives Miller a bad name, but it isn't a bad place to live, except for "people taking drugs and doing vandalism".
"There's a lot of kids round here that don't go to friggin' school and their parents don't make them," Andrew says. "They trash the neighbourhood and they steal."
The tough new federal legislation to crack down on welfare cheats is predicted to save the government $632 million over five years by cutting payments to people who miss Centrelink appointments or job interviews.
The cashless card is set to be trialled in some areas, with a view to rolling out elsewhere.
Young couple Ashleigh Walsh and Reginald Dixon have a baby daughter, Nakaiyah, and are hoping to get a housing department home for themselves. But for they are living with her mother.
Her mother, Judy, is on disability benefits due to her "bad back, bad knees and a lot of pain".
Judy has lived in Miller for 55 years, in the same housing property that her parents lived in.
The house is old, has no insulation and the Department of Housing no longer replaces fly
Ashleigh works as her mother's unpaid carer and says there are "lots of costs" for her mother's medication.
"I do all her cooking and cleaning and help her to the doctors," she said.
Ashleigh would like to get a job some day, but "it's hard to get work, especially around here".
Postcode 2770, where $1.38 of welfare is paid out for every dollar of income tax paid, includes the suburb of Bidwill.
'I'D RATHER PAY RENT'
Mum-of-six Diona Boney is bringing up her children, aged between eight months and seven, with her seventh child due in April next year.
Her eldest child Lataya is disabled, having fallen off the kitchen table onto her head as an 18-month-old. Diona says Lataya now has "the mind of a six-month-old and has up to 100 epilepsy seizures a day".
She says living in Bidwill means she gets "typecast", but she is proudly Aboriginal and does the best for her family.
"I live in a three-bedroom house with six kids and they have the same father," she told news.com.au.
"One of the bedrooms is unusable and with a seventh on the way I would rather have a private rent.
"I would pay about the same, $430 a week out here, to get a five bedroom.
"I get $1100 a fortnight and the majority of that, $860 goes on rent and what's left you feed the kids with.
"It's not much and it's an old house and up the road there's bird aviaries, so I have to pay for pest control for all the rats, mice and cockroaches.
"[My partner] works odd jobs, but because he's 37 not many people want to hire him.
"I could go and get a job, pick and pack at night time. You can earn $52 an hour, or traffic controller is $49 an hour.
"But my biggest fear is my daughter will get a seizure and I won't be there to take her to hospital."
Diona said she is very strict with disciplining her children and that the drug "ice is disgusting".
"I won't let them use medical marijuana for my daughter (to treat epilepsy seizures) because once that wears off kids want heavier drugs.
"I won't even give my son Ritalin because that could lead to ice.
"My nephew, when he turned 14, he was high on pot and I went round and said, 'If you want to be a drug addict, pack your bags right now and move out' and he hasn't touched it since.
"Kids hate being told what to do, but I say to my daughter, 'Suck it up, you are not a princess.'"
Diona says she has heard of "drug houses" in Bidwill and that "people my age around here are out partying".
"My party is being at home with my kids," she says.
"I don't take drugs, I don't drink alcohol and I've cut my own smoking from about 50 a day to 10.
Another suburb in the 2770 postcode is Willmot, which was the location of the first Struggle Street family, the Kennedys, in the SBS TV series' first season.
Gloria Swift has lived there for 33 years, and says she treats her Housing Department home as if she owns it.
She pays an extra $40 rent for the bedroom she rents out with the full disclosure to the department.
"If you live in government housing you have to look after it.
"Bit by bit I like to put my money where I can see it.
"I don't drink, smoke or gamble. I do the right things with my money.
"But I don't think it's right that [the federal Government] is targeting everyone because some people abuse the system.
"Crime will go up because people who don't have cash will have to rob others.
"People on welfare are doing it tough and that [cashless] card is going to make it worse.
"That card was being talked about for [some indigenous communities], it shouldn't be used to punish everyone.
"People slag off suburbs like Willmot, Shalvey and Bidwill, but there are some good people living here who if they were given a welfare card instead of payments it would seriously affect their lives."