I liken it to tax returns. Well I don't liken it to a tax return. I think the claims process by DVA is far more complex than a tax return. For someone like me, who is of reasonable menatal health a tax return is tedious, there's a lot of data entry, you have to look through receipts and we don't like to do it. And, in my view, a DVA claims process is far more complex. It's more legalistic, it's more bureaucratic. It involves collaboration with a range of stakeholders. For example, DVA, defence, doctors, other allied health professionals, trying to obtain evidence, in many cases from many years ago, to support the case. And then you've got the veteran at the centre of it all, many of whom have severe mental health conditions. And we know that veterans with PTSD have a hyperactive fear response. Because their amygdala, the fear centre responsible for the fear response of fight, flight and freeze is more pronounced, it's hyperactive, and their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive decision-making, higher order thinking and doing the harder thing, like trudging through a claims process is impaired, it's highpoactive. So all these ingredients are such that it's very difficult process and experience for veterans, particularly those with severe mental health conditions.
The audio you've just heard is Gerard McAleese, Senior Solicitor in Legal Aid's Veterans Advocacy Service, giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide. Gerard was speaking about the challenges traumatised veterans face claiming benefits to which they're entitled.
This is A Place to Call Home our podcast series on homelessness. We pay our respect to the traditional owners of the lands on which this episode was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. In this fourth episode, I speak to Esther and Danu ,solicitors in the Veterans Advocacy Service about homelessness in veterans.
I'd like to welcome Esther and Danu to the podcast today. We're talking about homelessness in relation to the veteran community. Danu and Esther, I'd ask you, would you please tell us about your role in the Veterans Advocacy Service and the work that you do?
Yeah, we both work as solicitors within the Veterans Advocacy Service. It's a specialist unit within the Government Law Team in Civil Law at Legal Aid. The Veterans Advocacy Service has a mixed team of advocates and solicitors and our role is to assist veterans, serving members of the armed forces and their families and dependents in claiming and receiving a range of different benefits that they can be entitled to because of their experience serving in the military.
Danu is there anything you'd like to add?
Just to comment that our services is designed for people living in New South Wales only. But if you if you listen to this podcast, and you're not in New South Wales, and you don't know who to reach to, and if you have a client, they've identified, of course, reach out to us, and we can always refer you to other services if we know in your state.
Are there particular causes of homelessness in the client group that you work with?
Well, we certainly do assist a lot of people who are suffering from multiple health conditions, including mental health conditions. And if you are a veteran, and bear in mind that when we say veteran, we don't just mean someone who's served overseas or in a conflict. For our purposes, veteran and for the purposes of the Department of Veterans Affairs and other Commonwealth infrastructure, a veteran is anyone who's served in the armed forces. So if you're a veteran who's suffering from a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition, you may be affected by trauma. People who have experienced trauma are well known to have a lot of difficulty with organising documents and what we might call life management. So, one of the hurdles people have when they come to us if they're homeless can be simply locating their proof of identity documents so we can prepare claims for them or gaining access to medical services. So we are really keen to work with community workers and social workers who can help bridge those communication gaps with clients and assist them with those essential tasks
I have a client at the moment. He's facing homelessness. He is transitioning from defence. It's a interesting situation because he is suffering from mental health conditions actually severely affecting his, his own life and his family life. What I'm doing for this client, for example, is I am attempting to, to refer him to services around New South Wales that might be able to help him, but also with his claim. So by the time that he leaves defence, he has at least his claims already, lodged with DVA and in regards to the link of homelessness, and mental health issues, one of the issues that he's mentioned to me is that, you know, at the moment, he's in defence housing, but once he's transitioned, he will not be able to live in the defence housing any longer, and he has applied for many tenancy, and been knocked back because of social behaviour, behaviours in previous tenancies, which can lead to homelessness and which will affect his, you know, his life and his, his family's life.
Am I correct in understanding that the transition from active service within the defence forces to civilian life is a time in which veterans are particularly vulnerable?
I believe. So of course, depending on the individual situations, not everyone is categorised in that example that I've just given. But there is a small number of veterans that I've encountered in the previous years that do face the risk of being homeless, after transitioning from defence, because of just as Esther mentioned, because they they might not be able to manage their own affairs because of social behaviours, due to the mental health conditions and the traumas that they experienced in service.
So in your view, is one of the main causes of homelessness in the veteran community, the trauma and mental health issues they may be experiencing, as a result of their service?
Could be. I would say, could be, but not necessarily the only reason.
I couldn't say for sure that that is one of the main causes, because there are so many drivers of homelessness at the moment in society generally. And I think veterans are somewhat over represented in that. There was a study published a few years back by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that pinpointed that veterans, or people who've served in the military, are over represented in homelessness, also, to some extent over represented in the criminal justice system and in having mental health disorders. And we certainly know that from our work.
So we don't provide services to address homelessness directly. But we are very concerned about reaching the most vulnerable groups of veterans and we know that people experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable. Being homeless might also be accompanied by having a mental health disorder, perhaps a substance abuse or alcohol abuse issue. All of those are diagnoseable medical conditions where compensation might be available from the Department of Veterans Affairs and we do aim to assist people in accessing the full range of benefits that they can get. If people come to us and they're homeless, not only do we do our best to facilitate all the documentation they need, which is challenging for somebody who's homeless and suffering mental health conditions. Basically, we're trying to connect people with all the benefits that they have a right to claim and receive, and the financial benefits available through the compensation system available to injured and sick veterans can help a lot with the financial problems that lead to homelessness. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Bridget, this is a podcast to community workers. And I believe they play a very, very important role with this clientele. And I would say how to community workers support if a person is a veteran or is facing homelessness?
Thanks for raising that Danu because one of my next questions is whether you and Esther have any tips for community workers who are supporting veterans experiencing homelessness?
Yes. So, so veterans and their families, as we know, they don't self identify. The reason for that, I am not completely sure and I'm not gonna guess here. But there is one simple question that you can ask your clients that will help you to find out if they ever served in defence. And the question is very quick and simple to an answer of "yes" or "no". So it doesn't take long. So you just need to ask, you know, "Have you ever served in the military?" or "Has anyone in your family ever served in the military?" and if your client says yes, then you identified a potential client to refer to our services, the Veterans Advocacy Service and you potentially flagged a hidden issue or issues, that Legal Aid is able to assist them. Once you identify that person's a veteran, we can then ask specific information from them once your service refer that client to us.
But we also can address all the legal issues the veteran might have, on might not again, identify themselves that they have for example, they might have a fine issue, they might have housing issues, they might have a family law, issue, and so on, and sometimes even issues related to criminal law. And we can certainly refer them to our internal teams, and address all the legal issues as well.
Esther, could you explain for community workers the types of assistance that your service can provide to veterans that are referred to Legal Aid?
Look, in years past, it was pretty common that people couldn't get help from a state Legal Aid Commission, if they didn't fill in a lot, fill in a lot of forms and satisfy a means test. That's partly true, the Legal Aid means tests still apply. And they're really important because they make sure that taxpayer funded legal assistance only goes to people who are in genuine need. But over and above grants of legal aid, where the Means Test applies, we do a lot of advice and minor assistance work to the most vulnerable groups in the community, including homeless people and veterans experiencing homelessness.
So if you've got a client where they're unsure about talking to Legal Aid, because they think, "Oh, no, I might not be eligible for legal aid", Don't worry, just give us a call. Because a lot of the advice and assistance work that we've been talking about is done in a separate realm from grants of legal aid, so you won't have to worry about the mean's test.
I really agree with what Danu just said about how one of the most important things community workers can do is simply ask the question, "Have you ever served in the armed forces?" because some veterans who've had bad experiences in the military and left it all behind don't bring it up. In fact, because of that, we produced some resources, some information resources to distribute through homelessness services, mental health services, and so on a few years ago, and we're happy to send them out to you. The resources that we've produced, have non militaristic imagery, and they just focus on the fact that if you have served in the military, there's benefits you could be receiving, please get in touch with us, and we're happy to send that material out to you.
Thanks, Esther, we'll include a link in the Show Notes to this episode to where people can find those resources.
Danu, you mentioned other legal issues that veterans might be experiencing. Are there particular legal issues that you both observe veterans might be experiencing?
In my experience, most of the clients that I've helped over the years, and I've been doing this work since 2017 roughly. It's mostly related to family law issues, such as custody of children, divorce, property settlement, in which it is an area, that Legal Aid doesn't necessarily represents clients, but they can certainly provide limited advice on that particular issue. I've seen a number of clients with fines and that could be parking fines, any other fine related issues.
Yes, we do get a lot of inquiries from people with family law issues and we make supportive referrals within Legal Aid about that. We do get quite a lot of inquiries from people who've had a bad experience within defence who are looking for advice about how to deal with a grievance about the way that we're treated within defence. And that's not so easy to find appropriate referrals for, but there's a few private firms that have got an interest in that area that we can refer out to.
In terms of the work we do within Legal Aid, we make a lot of internal referrals to family law, and also to to the Housing team, the Employment Law team, the Human Rights team.
Is domestic and family violence, one of the causes of homelessness in veterans?
I would say that plays a part. In my experience, I have seen some clients that had an AVO issued and they couldn't be at home, therefore placing their particular client in a vulnerable position. But I haven't seen a lot of that. But I imagined that it is a problem or what can cause homelessness.
Yeah. And we certainly do get consulted from time to time by veterans who are looking for advice and assistance in relation to an AVO, they may be defending an AVO. I think in general, it's pretty well understood that people who have a background of trauma and mental health conditions are going to be at greater risk of experiences of domestic and family violence, whether that's as a perpetrator or experiencing being on the receiving end of violence or abuse.
Have you observed any systemic issues that contribute to homelessness in veterans?
We are aware of a lot of systemic issues in the veterans entitlement system in general and our service has made submissions to Federal Government inquiries, including the current Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide and previously a Productivity Commission inquiry several years back. There's been a lot of systemic issues in the veterans compensation system identified through those inquiries, which have become pretty widely circulated in the news. I think those systemic issues, certainly do have a flow on effect, in the sense that they influence veterans' homelessness, I think a lot of veterans have difficulty asserting their rights, making claims, providing required documents, communicating with the Department of Veterans Affairs, receiving compensation for their injuries, because of systemic issues in terms of a massive, unwieldy compensation infrastructure and overly complex legislation. So we do aim to help people cut a clear pathway through some of those systemic problems. We help people claim benefits and entitlements through three main federal pieces of legislation that provide benefits. They provide benefits through rehabilitation through compensation for economic and non economic loss, that is compensation for impairment and compensation for the inability to work. There are pretty generous benefits available to veterans out there. They're administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Commonwealth Superannuation Commission, primarily. And I think for disempowered and disadvantaged veterans who may be homeless, simply getting through the gate of claiming and receiving those benefits is the biggest barrier, and we do aim to help and represent people through that process.
Thank you. Do you have a good news story about a client who was experiencing homelessness that your service has been able to assist?
I represented a client who was a resident of Lismore and he was experiencing homelessness, he was couchsurfing. It was very difficult to contact the client due to that. But also, there was a problem with with his mobile phone. So I could only call him for in a certain 10 minute window period on the day and it had to be in the morning otherwise I wouldn't be able to get through to the client. And what I managed to do was, he was staying in to emergency accommodation and he provided an authority to us to communicate with this provider. So I was able to send the claim forms to this particular emergency service. They would give it to him. He would complete it. They would fax the forms to me. And the nitty gritty paperwork and, and obtaining evidence was basically done through this way, which is very, it's very unusual, in a way. I would say, it's not the majority of our clients that we do that way, but sometimes it has to be done, so we did. We claimed all the benefits that he was entitled to and after a few months, DVA approved his claim, which he started receiving his benefits. It was a good way to restart his life, to go back on track and start looking for a stable accommodation. At least he could show that he was, he had, you know, money coming to his bank account. So, I worked with all the service providers in Lismore to assist this client to find accommodation, permanent accommodation, and I am aware that he is now in housing and has a stable situation. And he also is in receipt of his, of the benefits that he deserved and he was entitled to.
That's a great story Danu. It also illustrates the important work that you solicitors do working with community and other support organisations to assist the clients that you're working with.
If there were something that you could ask government for to alleviate homelessness, that veterans experience, what would it be?
I do believe the government should be looking into homelessness amongst veterans within Australia wise, more closely. It is a real issue. It is a real problem. And I think (although this is my own personal opinion here) I do think that in the next few years, the issues will just escalate. You know, as we know, mental health issues often stay with that person for the rest of their lives and depending on how critical or how affected you are during a period of time, that can certainly lead you to become homeless and lose control of your own life. So I do think that we as Australians, and government, we need to, it is important to look into that issue very closely and address that with a certain urgency.
And look, I would add to that, that I think everything that Federal and State governments can do currently and into the future to alleviate housing stress, as well as direct homelessness is going to have a beneficial impact in the long term on homelessness issues affecting veterans, because it's pretty well known that housing stress and homelessness interrelate.
I've only directly assisted a handful of veterans who have been experiencing homelessness at the time, although I would definitely like to have more homeless clients referred to me if possible. However, coming back to good news stories, I've assisted a lot of clients who have been experiencing housing stress, and in almost all cases, being able to gain improved levels of fortnightly income through the benefits available through veterans compensation legislation, be it special rate pension, incapacity payments, or other benefits. Those benefits have always had a positive impact on people's housing stress be it, helping them sustain a mortgage and own a home or be it being able to gain stable rental accommodation in the private rental market or through social housing.
Ir even assist with the children's schooling.
Yearh veterans, severely injured veterans who've got a very high impairment rating are able to gain additional compensation for each dependent child they have. And it's pretty significant amounts of money around $80,000 per child if they meet the criteria. But there's a lot of untapped benefits out there and I think compared with people in the community, generally, if veterans are able to access the benefits available, there's a pretty generous system available to them, if they're able to tap into it. Tapping into it can be the hard thing and that's what we aim to help with.
Also lately, I have seen a lot of people that, interestingly, have claimed compensations and receive benefits and has been receiving for years now, approaching us saying, "Oh, you know, my conditions much worse. What do I do?" Well, you can claim the worsening of the conditions that have been already accepted and increase your benefit in that way. So a lot of people in the community don't know that they can do that as well. We can certainly help in that aspect.
I imagine too, if government were able to address the systemic issues that have been identified through the Royal Commission that would go some way to helping veterans more quickly gain access to the benefits they're entitled to.
Yeah, yes, certainly, I think a lot of the issues that have come before the Royal Commission, and it's focused on because it's heard so many stories from people talking to the Royal Commission, has been about the difficulties that a lot of veterans have had in their interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.
Veterans law, as we call it, it's very, very, very complex. It is complex to us every now and then, to understand so we can only imagine how, you know, someone that doesn't work in this area doesn't have the knowledge, how they would navigate the system. And I think one of the solutions would be to certainly make legislation clearer and simpler.
Yeah, and that's one of the issues that is very high on the Royal Commission's agenda, the recommendations about simplifying the legislation. And that's going to flow one benefit to people in the long run in that it'll make it easier to claim and then that people that don't have access to legal advice, but make a claim anyway, will be potentially less disadvantaged by falling into some of the pitfalls that exist if you don't know you know how to navigate the varying legislation.
We invite your service, if you're interested to get in touch with us. We can always organise a presentation to your service, not only in relation to the laws applicable to this area, but also further talk about our services and how we can help and how you can help your clients and how we can work together to help all veterans and their families. I highly recommend get in touch with us and let's work together. Let's be part of the solution.
Look, I agree I wholeheartedly agree. And I would also say to everybody listening, if you ever approached by a veteran or a family member of a veteran who's got a letter with a decision from an administrative decision maker, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, call us straightaway, because primary decisions are reviewable. And one of the main kinds of work we do is representing people in merits review, that's getting an independent tribunal to revisit a decision and possibly change it for the better.
What is the best number or method for community workers or veterans to contact your service?
That's Ph. 02 9219 5148. We've also got a website contact form.
And we can also be contacted by direct email, which is email@example.com. We are happy to receive referrals for your service, by email, by phone, or by you going to the self referral on the Legalaid website.
Thank you, and we'll include a link to that in the Show Notes for this episode.
That's all for this episode. Have a look in our Show Notes for numbers and web addresses for the Veterans Advocacy Service, and any other services we referred to during this episode. Our next episode will be out soon. Thank you for listening.