Helping people to claim what is theirs

‘People would need to seek advice before applying for any benefit assistance, because they don’t know what they could miss out on,’ says Teresa Homan of Upper Hutt.

Benefit advocates at the Hutt Valley Benefit Education Service Trust (BEST) say the only reasonable advice they could give beneficiaries, if new Social Security legislation is passed, would be to apply for every single benefit for which there are forms at the WINZ office.

Helping people to claim what is theirs Archdiocese of Wellington For us it will create more work,’ says BEST coordinator, Teresa Homan, who is also a parishioner of St Joseph’s parish, Upper Hutt. ‘People would need to seek advice before applying for any benefit assistance, because they don’t know what they could miss out on.’

Hutt Valley BEST is the only benefit advocacy service in New Zealand with a specifically Catholic character, being based at the Suzanne Aubert Centre at the Home of Compassion in Heretaunga, Upper Hutt. 

However, Catholics motivated by their faith to assist New Zealand’s poorest citizens to obtain their full benefit entitlements are to be found as trained benefit advocates at many of New Zealand’s benefit advocacy organisations. The Wellington branch of St Vincent de Paul has appointed a trained benefit advocate to the staff of its office, and the Compassion Centre in Wellington also offers access to a benefit advocate one day a week.

BEST was established in 2002 by a coalition of community organisations in the Hutt Valley, after community forums in both Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt identified specialist benefit advocacy as a key unmet need in the valley. Statistics showed that ‘third tier’ assistance such as the special benefit was underpaid in the valley compared to other regions.

Support from the Home of Compassion, Caritas, the Catholic Foundation, Hutt Valley churches and a number of parishioners of Our Lady of Grace parish in Heretaunga, including current BEST Board chair Paul Blumsky has enabled the service to assist many beneficiaries and low-income workers.

For Teresa, motivation to assist beneficiaries came out of a sense of their inherent rights and dignity. ‘We are only assisting people to claim what is actually theirs by right.’

As Teresa, and fellow advocates Bob Bamford, Paul Pearson and Heather Childs point out, benefit rates are set at the minimum estimated for survival. ‘If they are not getting everything that they are entitled to, they are in dire need.’

Ironically, as unemployment figures have dropped, alongside overall beneficiary numbers, BEST has noticed a hardening of attitudes against those who remain on benefits, even though many are those for whom work is not likely to be a viable path out of poverty, such as those caring for young children, or people with severe disabilities.

They say that many people feel intimidated before approaching their WINZ office for assistance. ‘A lot of elderly people are afraid to go into Work and Income.  They have heard from other elderly people that it’s a battlefield to get through.  People are scared and nervous about going there,’ says Paul.

BEST staff members don’t understand the motivation behind proposals that benefits cannot be granted if beneficiaries don’t themselves know to apply on the correct form and with the right supporting documentation. They say the overriding case law to date says it is the responsibility of WINZ to advise people of their entitlements and to assist them to apply for it.

‘From a situation where the applicant reports a need for assistance, and the department looks for avenues to help, it is moving to a situation where a beneficiary arms themselves to fight for what they are entitled to, against a department that looks for reasons not to pay,’ says Bob.

Teresa fears that publicity about some small lump-sum payouts has created a negative perception in people’s minds. ‘They are only receiving the money that should have been paid to them all along.’