Dave is patiently waiting for the foodbank to open at Fitzroy’s Mission House. This is emergency help at its most basic. "Things are tough," he says. "It’s cold, the bills keep coming and the money just doesn’t stretch far enough some weeks. I’m careful, but when there’s no cash left, what do you do? That’s why I’m here."
Dave lives in government housing in Collingwood. Two separate injuries put him out of work 10 years ago and it’s been hard to find a way back.
The first week of winter can mark the start of even rougher times for those living in poverty. The release of Anglicare Victoria’s 2011 Hardship Survey shows just how tough it is for those at the bottom end of the income scale.
The new report is a snapshot of people accessing the agency’s emergency relief services and makes for grim reading.
For those surviving on Centrelink payments it is a daily battle — with decent housing, nutritious food, dental treatment and prescription medication often the casualties of a budget that doesn’t add up.
The report also found that around half of those accessing emergency relief do not have $500 in case of an emergency, have no home insurance and no comprehensive car insurance — leaving them vulnerable to debt should they be broken into or involved in a road accident.
Report author Dr Sarah Wise told New Matilda that’s an impossible financial position. "People presenting to Anglicare’s emergency services are not making ends meet — not because of poor or reckless spending choices like gambling and boozing, but because they get caught in a cycle of debt from rising cost of living pressures and no back up should anything go wrong like an illness or large bill."
Only 4 per cent of participants’ weekly income was spent on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and gambling, an indication that the poor are not squandering pension payments. And begging the question, is the Federal Government’s planned roll out of welfare quarantining what recipients really need to help their situation?
Victoria’s peak welfare body, VCOSS, is not convinced. CEO Cath Smith says she has significant concerns about income management being trialed in parts of the state. "We know lower income earners spend a larger proportion of their household budget on life’s necessities and it’s crucial that income management measures do not add to their disadvantage," she says.
"The challenge to policy makers and governments is to come up with real responses that don’t further marginalise already vulnerable people."
For many surviving on low incomes, debt is inevitable. Borrowing money can relieve short-term pressure but debt often becomes a millstone. Indeed, the Hardship Survey shows low income earners spend around $60 a week on debts other than a mortgage.
Ian Wallbridge at Mission House in Fitzroy told New Matilda that this leaves many clients like mice trapped inside a wheel of debt, forced to take out "payday" emergency cash loans to cover one debt, then borrowing more to meet the high interest repayments.
Anglicare Victoria’s emergency relief staff say those accessing help are presenting with more and more complex needs. Precarious housing, mental and physical illness, family breakdown and cultural issues combine to complicate the basic problem of poverty.
"Food is just a little part of what they’re needing," says Lynn Elder, coordinator of Anglicare’s Dixon House. "We try to link in with other services to help them."
Ian Wallbridge says there are increasing numbers of asylum seekers coming through the doors of Mission House. Many are living in limbo waiting for residency status and have no official records. This means they have no choice but to survive on hand outs. One West Papuan man could not even get a SIM card for a mobile phone as he had no official identification.
Judy Beshara oversees all volunteering at Mission House. She’s been there for a decade and says things are worse since the global financial crisis. She says more people are coming in seeking rental assistance as costs rise and people lose part-time jobs that often kept their families’ heads above water. She tells her clients to always pay rent first.
Beshara remembers one single father with no transport accessing the food bank at Mission House and walking back to Northcote with six shopping bags to be home in time for his children’s return from school.
According to Sarah Wise, the evidence shows people receiving emergency relief are not living it up and don’t want to be on welfare for the rest of their lives. She says strategies are needed to make sure people don’t get into crippling debt, and to that end, that current levels of income support need to be reviewed.
VCOSS is also concerned that some of those needing financial help are now actually worse off under measures announced in the May Budget. Cath Smith cites the $56 per week cut in payments for some groups of single parents with teenage children, and $43 a week reduction in payments for unemployed 21-year-olds.
She told New Matilda that the Anglicare Hardship Survey shows vulnerable Victorians need better services. "It is shocking that people are forced to forego medical treatment and at least one decent meal a day because they can’t afford it." Smith says cheaper housing, better infrastructure on the urban fringes and readily accessible general and mental health services are urgently needed.
Dave continues to wait patiently for the foodbank to open. A crowd starts to gather in the cold Fitzroy air. Most are rugged up in layers of old jumpers and scarves — some wrap their arms around themselves tightly and shiver against the cold. These are the faces behind the statistics — and they’re waiting for change.
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