Australia’s community services unable to meet growing demand

1 July 2013

The largest survey of Australia’s community services sector reveals that frontline agencies are under enormous strain and unable to meet the growing demand for help, according to the Australian Council of Social Service.

The annual Australian Community Sector Survey of over 500 agencies shows that housing availability and affordability is the greatest unmet need for clients of welfare services, followed by community-based care and treatment for mental illness and emergency relief.

“The clear message from this year’s survey is that Australia’s housing affordability crisis is having a devastating impact, especially for people on the lowest incomes who are falling deeper into poverty,” said ACOSS Deputy CEO, Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine.

“This is borne out by the fact that across the board, all services overwhelmingly nominated this as the greatest need of clients coming to them for help. Nearly 70% of housing and homeless services themselves reported that they struggled to meet demand, with a 5% increase in the number of people turned away.

“One of the striking features was that almost 80% of people presenting to the housing and homeless services that participated in the survey were wholly reliant on income support payments. They were also highly represented in numbers seeking help as reported by emergency relief providers (75%) and mental health services (61%). This is extremely alarming and further evidence of the damage being caused by keeping allowance payments such as Newstart as low as $35 a day.

“The other services under significant stress who reported being unable to meet demand among their own client groups were legal services (63%), youth services (52%) and emergency relief (47%) providers. Mental health (47%) and domestic violence and sexual assault services (46%) also reported being unable to meet demand for services.

“Most services reported having targeted their services more tightly or limiting service levels to meet demand. This was especially so for legal services (85%), emergency relief providers (82%) and mental health services (70%).

“These measures resulted in lower numbers of people being turned away than otherwise would have been the case. However, legal service still reported the highest level of turn-aways (20%). High numbers were also turned away from youth welfare (17%), housing and homelessness services (16%) and domestic violence services (13%).

“Our overall findings paint a disturbing picture of a sector under critical pressure, including from chronic underfunding and uncertainty about the funding of services. A majority of all services reported that the cost of delivering services exceeded revenue, and over the past three years our survey has consistently identified this as the most significant challenge facing the sector into the future.

“Australia’s community welfare sector makes an enormous contribution to Australian society: community services and health are our country’s largest industry grouping, employing 12% of the total workforce. This is projected to grow by at least 35% over the next ten years, according to the Community Services and Health Industry Skills Council. Our sector already contributes more than 5% to GDP.

“Yet the community sector is being undermined by severe underfunding and lack of action to deal with the national housing affordability and availability crisis that continues to squeeze households and plunge those on the lowest incomes into deeper poverty.

“We need urgent action to address these issues, along with a plan to increase the abysmally low income support allowance payments like Newstart, if we are going to prevent more people falling into poverty and into the arms of our already stretched community services,” Dr Boyd-Caine said.

Media Contact: Fernando de Freitas 0419 626 155



Summary of key findings

Housing still the highest priority for clients and policy makers
• 66% of housing and homeless services report struggling to meet demand.
• Over 60% of overall respondents listed housing and homelessness services amongst those for which their clients had the highest need.
• 61% of all respondents said improving housing availability and affordability is the top policy priority.
• 62% said waiting times for services had increased since the previous 12 months.
• Services reported a 16% turn-away rate, up 5% from 2010/11.

Legal services turn away one-fifth of all clients in need
• 63% of legal service providers reported not being able to meet demand for services, and legal services ranked second highest on inability to meet demand.
• 20% of all clients in need of assistance from surveyed community legal services were turned away in 2011/12, the highest turn-away rate across all service types.
• 85% of legal services reported having targeted their services more tightly or limiting service levels to meet demand.
• 67% reported being underfunded and 59% said they had increased waiting times for services.
•bull; 76% of services asked staff and volunteers to work additional hours in attempt to meet demand.

Youth Services also report extremely high turn-away rates
• Youth services reported the second highest client turn-away rate of 17% – almost 8% up on the previous year.
• 52% could not meet demand.
• 65% required staff or volunteers to work longer hours and targeted services more tightly or limited service levels to meet demand.

Mental health services, emergency relief in high need, yet struggle to meet demand
• 57% identified mental health services as ‘high need’, while 40% identified emergency relief
• Increasing the availability of mental health services was the third highest policy priority for the sector’s clients.
• Over 80% of emergency relief providers agreed that the cost of service delivery exceeded revenue and reported targeting services more tightly or limiting service levels to meet demand.
• 70% of mental health services also reported targeting services more tightly to meet demand.

About the Survey:
The Australian Community Sector Survey is the only annual national survey collecting data about the non-government, not-for-profit community services and welfare sector. The survey has been running since 1998 and this year was conducted between March and June 2013. It covers the period from 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012. A total of 532 organisations responded to the survey, reporting on service provision, demand for services and unmet need, client demographics, and operational, policy and regulatory issues and challenges facing the community services sector. Through its use of a unique service classification scheme and its ability to reach significant numbers of smaller, locally based organisations across Australia, the ACSS accurately reflect the breadth of views, challenges and pressures experienced across the sector.