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A helping hand

In the small, cramped space of a housing commission unit, Denny waits for his next visit from Vinnies. He rang last week for some food vouchers and has just had his social security payment revoked. It won’t be reinstated until next week.

Two volunteers climb the stairs to his unit. They have a sheet with notes on each of the people they are to visit today. The well-organised grids are typed with relevant information like: single mother, two children, on a pension. A note is next to Denny’s name. It tells the volunteers they must advise him to try ringing some other organisations for help, maybe give him some financial advice. The look on Denny’s face as they walk through the door makes the task particularly difficult. The volunteers attempt to soften the blow. They don’t know how to explain the situation. Eventually, they follow their instincts, apologise, give him some food vouchers and tell him to call whenever he needs help again.

The reason they have been asked to do this, is that the Society is forced to evenly distribute limited resources. Each week, Vinnies has to try and work out who needs extra support—who is living in poverty and why. The Society spirit cautions against labelling people as ‘welfare dependents’, and they believe in more than just a handout. They attempt to find what lies beneath people’s need, to assess what is causing poverty and isolation. And these values need to be stronger than ever, as requests for assistance in the last year have almost doubled. More and more, the Society has needed to allow for greater distribution of resources in the face of long-term unemployment and increased isolation.

‘We’re facing a bigger number of people that suffer greater financial deprivation,’ says Victorian State President of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Syd Tutton.

Coupled with this demand is a greater expectation of professionalism and indeed a push to ‘corporatise’ the Society. Corporatisation, while necessary, needs to incorporate the initial vision.

Despite a time of economic prosperity for Australia, volunteers are finding that government agencies no longer provide all the essential services for the most marginalised. Increasingly, governments—both state and federal—have moved to outsource support work to charity organisations.

The alarming increase in reliance on the Society is demonstrated in a 9.6 per cent increase in welfare requests for 2003–04. Further, there has been a 100 per cent increase in requests for assistance with utility accounts.

The reasons underlying these increases are varied. The deinstitutionalisation of the welfare support sector has meant that a rug has been whipped out from underneath many of society’s most vulnerable. Boarding houses, aged-care facilities and accommodation for intellectually-disabled people have been sold by governments. This makes centralising care and creating a sense of community difficult and can exacerbate isolation.

A staggering 21 per cent of Australians now live in households that make less than $400 a week, which equates to 3.6 million people living below the poverty line. 852,000 children live in houses where neither parent works; 167,000 children live in working poor households; and one in every six 15–19 year olds may never find secure employment.

Recently appointed CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s National Council, Helen Cameron, has come in at a time of upheaval. Part of her job is to work with people around Australia to enact a cohesive plan which allows the Society to effectively lobby government on poverty issues to ensure that they, and other charities, are not placed in a position where they have to turn people away. She faces the task of mobilising resources so the best outcomes can be found to assist the most marginalised.

‘I aim to help the Society deliver its services to the poor in a better way’, she says. Helen feels that Australia has not done its best to ensure that everyone has equal access to wealth, and that the poorest 30 per cent miss out.

‘As to the role Vinnies can play in this area in the future, some of the key areas of effort lie in Vinnies’ ability to give a hand-up to people who are disadvantaged either by upbringing or lifestyle.’

Ideally, respecting the dignity of the people they serve is one of the main objectives of Vinnies. Through education programs, they hope to reduce reliance on the welfare system, while recognising that there are many who will always be in need of support.

The situation of increasing need has been brought to the attention of government departments and MPs by a large coalition of organisations including Vinnies, Anglicare, UnitingCare, Catholic Welfare Australia and Jesuit Social Services to name a few. The Christian Community Services Against Poverty (a coalition of the aforementioned organisations) launched a campaign prior to the federal election, urging people to vote against parties whose policies contribute to systematic poverty. Additionally, this year’s federal government Senate report into poverty A hand up not a hand out: Renewing the fight against poverty received 30 submissions from Vinnies. These recommendations (and those from other service organisations) were collated into the report.

One recommendation is to set up an anti-poverty strategy, examples of which have been enacted in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Such strategies assist in keeping poverty at the forefront of public debate.

In Ireland, in 1986, a Combat Poverty Agency was created, advising government on poverty issues, undertaking research, and setting up projects to deal with unemployment. There is also a public education aspect to their work. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has established a national office for social inclusion, and senior public servants meet twice a year to observe how the anti-poverty strategy is working. In Australia, organisations like Vinnies and Catholic Welfare Australia may play a similar role in monitoring an anti-poverty strategy undertaken by government.

In creating anti-poverty strategies for Australia, the human face of the problem needs to be addressed. Too many children grow up in families where the only source of income is part-time or casual work. If one parent works above the prescribed number of hours, their social security payment is decreased for each hour worked. The casualisation of the workforce means that many workers are unable to secure permanent employment. These ‘poverty traps’ mean that as soon as any crisis develops, a battling family’s ability to make ends meet is crushed. An anti-poverty strategy would, as its main priority, protect those most vulnerable, and consider introducing changes to welfare and social security measures.

A more considered approach needs to be introduced by government in order to alleviate poverty in Australia. Australia has sufficient wealth such that no one should live below the poverty line. A social security system that has unreasonable reporting expectations leaves charities to bridge a gap that is a government responsibility to fill. More concentrated and specific strategies need to be adopted, and those affected need to be included in a consultative process. Because, in a time of economic prosperity, people like Denny still sometimes need a helping hand.        

Beth Doherty is the assistant editor of Eureka Street, and a member of the 2004 Victorian Young Vinnies Community. Photo by Bill Thomas.



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