Relief cuts endanger Tasmania’s most vulnerable

UnitingCare Tasmania’s emergency relief operations in southern Tasmania will be reduced from four half days a week to about 10 hours a week in the wake of a 30 per cent funding cut by the Federal Government.

And when people do arrive seeking support they will be offered less.

UnitingCare Tasmania Chief Executive Lindy O’Neill said the organisation’s services at Bridgewater-Gagebrook and the Hobart Benevolent Society, in the city, had previously been able to offer food vouchers worth $80 a visit but they will now be worth $50.

Instead of being able to offer families assistance once every six weeks that is now more likely to be once every nine weeks.

Clients will be more likely to receive food parcels rather than food vouchers as UnitingCare Tasmania seeks to stretch its funds as far as possible.

While that may sound reasonable, Ms O’Neill said it must be remembered that parcels may not take into account an individual family’s cultural or dietary requirements and it was far more humiliating than a voucher where people could choose for themselves.

Ms O’Neill said the cuts made an already difficult situation even harder for many of the agency’s clients.

“Many of our clients are forced to often choose between buying food or paying essential bills such as utilities,” Ms O’Neill said.

“Parents often choose to feed their children and go without themselves and engage in paying the most urgent bill just before the service is disconnected or a debt collection service is involved.

“Some people have even been unable to pay for essential prescription medicines.”

The impact of offering clients less support is not only felt by the affected families. Ms O‘Neill said it also impacted negatively on the health and wellbeing of the agency’s staff, many of whom volunteer their time to support society’s most marginalised.

“They are aware of people who are failing to keep up with cost of living pressures and daily work with families who have already stretched their income to breaking point,” she said.

“These are not families who can’t budget. These are people for whom the simple maths of income and expenditure do not and cannot balance.

“Staff are becoming distressed and increasingly anxious for their clients as the full extent of these cuts becomes obvious and they have seen what happens when families are under enormous financial pressure.

“Incidents of domestic violence increase, some people turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling to escape and mental health issues can be exacerbated.”

Ms O’Neill said the agency was yet to see demand of support peak in 2015 and yet already UnitingCare was behind the eight ball in terms of federal funding.

“Most worrying is the fact that winter is not yet upon us and higher demands for energy, firewood, blankets and shelter are yet to be factored into the new reality of what the state’s emergency relief services will have the capacity to provide.

Ms O’Neill said in past years the State Government has provided some funding for emergency relief. While UnitingCare Tasmania has tried to find out what will happen in 2015-2016 there has been a deafening silence from the government to date.

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