Costly bills leave many struggling to survive

Electricity bills are contributing to financial pressure for many people who are turning to charities for help.
Electricity bills are contributing to financial pressure for many people who are turning to charities for help. John Farmer

THE skyrocketing cost of electricity, climbing rent and cuts to government assistance are creating pain for many in the community with young people, single parent families and pensioners hit hardest.

St Vincent de Paul's Michael Timbrell said an increasing number of people were seeking help on a regular basis in the Clarence region.

"Looking at the figures for July to September 2014, we can see an increase of 14% in Grafton when compared to the same time last year," Mr Timbrell said.

"The pressure seems to come from the high cost of rent, electricity, utilities and mobile phone - everybody has one these days.

"Generally people spend a majority of their income on covering those things then they seek help from us for food vouchers.

Mr Timbrell said the biggest demand for assistance was from single mums which he blames on changes to the single parent payment that took effect in early 2013.

"The cost of electricity and rent is killing people," Mr Timbrell said.

"Rent makes up a huge proportion of people's income. We see people who are paying more than 50% of their income on rent."

He said the majority of people who sought assistance from St Vincent de Paul were living below the poverty line and most required ongoing assistance.

"We try to provide people with a hand-up and assist them to take better control but the reality is we're propping up an inadequate government payment... put it this way - we're never going to be out of business."

"The good thing, from our point of view, is that St Vincent de Paul has a strong network of second-hand clothing shops which provide a source of income so we can provide assistance - without those retail shops we wouldn't be able to provide support services."

Jenny Beaumont, manager of Riverside Care, said the Grafton-based support service had also experienced an increase in demand, with a growing number of young people seeking help.

"We've always helped a lot of single parent families but we are seeing more young single people on NewStart doing it tough; mostly because budget accommodation is so hard to find," Mrs Beaumont said.

"Many haven't got a car, they can't get a job, and paying for shared accommodation at around $80 a week is a fair slug out of the NewStart payment."

Mrs Beaumont said there was a noticeable rise in the number of young people with no fixed address, couch surfing, sleeping in their car or on the street.

"A lot of people really struggling with accommodation in Grafton, outside of (Public) Housing there's not a lot of budget accommodation and Housing has a long waiting period."

Mrs Beaumont said Aboriginal people, single families, people living with mental health disorders, people with disabilities, substance abusers, and pensioners pushed to their limit were also likely to seek help.

The months leading up to Christmas were particularly difficult for those doing it tough.

"We see a substantial number of people every week; the numbers up and down depending on the time of year, but before Christmas is always a hard time, especially if you have children, you want to bless them at Christmas time."

Riverside Care provides assistance with what Mrs Beaumont describes as 'survival food', or pantry basics.

They also provide vouchers for meat, fruit and vegetables, help with pharmaceutical scripts and second-hand furniture.

"Sometimes people, when they come in for the first time, are in a mess. While we are not a counselling service we do provide moral support; compassion and someone to listen to their story," she said.

Most of the funding provided by Riverside Care comes in the form of government grants, as well as money raised from donated goods sold at the Bargain Centre, and funding from the Riverside Church.

"We wouldn't be able to function without community assistance."

She said the current grant was due to expire in December and there was no guarantee the funding allocated last year would be available next year.

Topics:  clarence valley money poverty

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