Making do with much less

inequality scale
By Nigel Tapp

UnitingCare agencies and churches involved with emergency relief funding are being expected to do more with much less following a cut of about 30 per cent in Federal Government emergency relief funding across the board.

Some agencies have been defunded completely and most are not certain if the money they have lost has been redistributed or just taken out of the pool.

UnitingCare agencies and churches synod-wide have had their emergency relief funding from the Federal Government slashed by almost 30 per cent – or a third – over the next three years.

And that means less employment, tighter opening hours and, crucially, less assistance for vulnerable people in Victoria and Tasmania unless the agencies can find avenues to increase their contributions, a difficult ask in straightened financial times.

Between 2011 and 2014 churches and agencies received $4.17 million in emergency relief funding from the federal government but that will be reduced to $2.91 million over the next three years, even though demand is expected to increase.

Not only has funding been slashed but four agencies – East Burwood, Harrison, Wodonga and Prahran Mission – have been defunded, although it is not clear if that funding has been picked up by other agencies operating in the same geographic area. UnitingCare Geelong did not apply for funding.

UnitingCare Tasmania was also defunded for the work it had been doing in the Southern Midlands.

Uniting Churches at Scoresby, North Ringwood, Plenty Valley and Croydon were also defunded but do not know if other agencies were successful in picking up their money.

On top of that, agency funding for financial counselling has also been dramatically reduced with UnitingCare figures suggesting a decrease of about $2 million a year to key agencies.

Lentara UnitingCare – which provides emergency relief services in the highly depressed areas of Broadmeadows and Sunshine – expected, on the basis of clients seen and increased demand, to see a funding increase from the latest round.

What it got instead was a 25 per cent cut over the next three years, with funding down from $420,000 to $316,000 per year.

Forcing the agency to reduce accordingly can only lead to inevitable outcomes of cutting back support according to its general manager of community services Greg Wilkinson.

“It means we will struggle to employ qualified staff in our programs, we will not be able to be as holistic in the provision of material aid, our capacity to provide financial support will be diminished and we will not be able to provide support to families as often,” Mr Wilkinson said.

This is against the backdrop of a region where financial disadvantage is on the rise. Employment opportunities are disappearing – particularly for young people and groups such as asylum seekers – as people move into the area in increasing numbers.

Mr Wilkinson said not being able to provide support at the level required has taken a toll on staff working at the coalface.

“It becomes demoralising,” he said.

“People generally access emergency relief at a time of crisis and having to tell them that we cannot provide support at the level we once did, or not at all, is very hard,” he said.

Mr Wilkinson said the Federal Government’s mantra for a year now had been that times are tough and their revenue streams don’t flow as freely as they have in the past.

“I think some of that is evident when you look at organisations which are being funded and those which are not.”

Mr Wilkinson said it was unfortunate that the government reduced spending in an area such as emergency relief without seeking to address the economic fundamentals which lead people to require such support.

Mr Wilkinson said that what would happen in communities throughout the synod if more money did not flow to emergency relief was clear.

“It is disappointing that the funding has dropped so dramatically. People will go without.

“People in financial disadvantage already go without and they will continue to make choices between putting food on the table or a school excursion, choosing what is more important to pay – car registration or rent?

“These people are not making any headway; they are going from crisis to crisis.”

Mr Wilkinson said it generally meant the activities which enrich people’s lives – such as going to the movies, a meal with friends or playing sport on the weekend – were pushed aside.

He said Lentara would need to find avenues to supplement its emergency reserves.

“We could find some funding through support from local communities, local businesses and the Church, but it would be difficult to make up this shortfall,” he said.

“All of that takes time and energy and when you do not have the staff, those sort of strategic activities become much harder.”

While Mr Wilkinson sees a role for the Church in providing support for marginalised people, he also considers that this level of support must be kept in proportion to the responsibility of the government to provide financial support at a level which allows everyone to live to an acceptable standard.

Share director of operations and development, Angela Goodwin, is acutely aware of the impact the Federal Government’s cuts have had on agencies and congregations.

This year the Uniting Church fundraising arm has received 27 grant applications totalling $887,000 relating to emergency relief programs. Last year Share had 17 applications and distributed about $505,000 to Uniting Church providers.

The $887,000 being sought this year is actually in line with the total amount of grant funding provided by Share in recent years.

On current projections Ms Goodwin concedes meeting that demand will be a very tall order.

“It can only be achieved if we see a significant increase in the response to our Winter Appeal,” she said.

“What we are hoping to see this year is congregations who have not donated to Share in the past be encouraged to do so.”

Prahran Mission delivers emergency relief services to about 3500 clients a year and has to do that with about $50,000, or a quarter, less than in other years.

Chief executive officer Quinn Pawson said while it was “damned annoying” the agency would need to source alternative funds to fill its pot, he could not argue against a redistribution of monies if it was nuanced to meet the greatest need.

Mr Pawson said that did not always occur, particularly when a federal agency was involved because it was quite removed.

He said he was confident the agency would meet its community needs as it had always done.

“As an agency of the Church, meeting unmet need is within our brief, the Church has been doing that more than 150 years in Victoria and as an agency we have been doing that for close on 70 years.

“There will be movements in funds at times and our responsibility is to plug those holes as they occur.”

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