Community services under strain in shadow of Delta

A new ACOSS report released today reveals increasing levels of demand for social services as well as an increase in the number of people unable to be supported by overworked community organisations, amidst rising levels of poverty and disadvantage.

The report, Meeting demand in the shadow of the Delta outbreak: Community Sector experiences is drawn from the Australian Community Sector Survey. a regular survey undertaken by UNSW Sydney’s Social Policy Research Centre on behalf of ACOSS and the State and Territory Councils of Social Service, and funded by Bendigo Bank, Australia’s better big bank. The 2021 survey surveyed 1,828 community sector staff during September 2021 in the shadow of the COVID-19 Delta lockdowns.

The report demonstrates the range of intersecting challenges the community sector faced in responding to people impacted by COVID-19. Key findings from the report include:

  • 80% of respondents reported that levels of demand for their main service increased.
  • 81% of respondents reported growing complexity of need among service users.
  • 58% of respondents reported an increase in the number of clients their service was unable to support.
  • Only 6% of services were always able to meet demand, down from 19% in 2020.
  • 73% of respondents reported increased levels of poverty and disadvantage in the communities they support.

Services reported that the main challenges people faced this year were housing affordability and homelessness, social isolation, lack of access to mental health supports, cost of living pressures and inadequate income support. Demand for services spiked, particularly for housing and homelessness services, financial support and counselling, and supports for children, young people and families.

ACOSS Acting CEO Edwina MacDonald said, “This report shows just how difficult it has been for community service organisations to keep up with demand for their services during a tumultuous and exhausting year. Not only have services seen a sharp rise in demand, but they’ve also seen people’s needs become more complex and harder to meet. This shows the deep and sustained toll the pandemic has had on those living on low incomes across the country.

“In 2020, we saw improvements in the experiences of people on low incomes with the initial introduction of the Coronavirus Supplement. However, in 2021, with the emergence of the Delta variant and the withdrawal of income supplements, we saw people everywhere struggling to survive and needing to access more essential services to cope.

“Community organisations showed tremendous resilience and creativity to continue to deliver services to people experiencing poverty and disadvantage despite prolonged lockdowns, strict public health measures and short-term, uncertain funding arrangements.

“Even with this hard work, we’re concerned that only 6 per cent of services said they could always meet demand. This shows a worrying increase in people’s need for help, plus highlights how challenging it is for community organisations to adequately meet that need.

“Australia is not yet finished with the challenges of COVID-19. We still have to complete the vaccination rollout including booster shots, we’re witnessing new variants like Omicron emerge, and there is still the real prospect of further outbreaks in the community with further economic and social disruption.

“With the shadow of COVID likely to be long, community services must be recognised and resourced as part of our national COVID-19 recovery plan. Stronger services mean more resilient communities.“

A national COVID-19 recovery plan should include a new strategic partnership between the Federal Government and the community sector, to strengthen the working relationship and ensure the expertise and importance of the sector is embedded in government administration and policy development. This partnership would include:

  • a new approach to the funding of community services based on need
  • a new approach to the delivery of services based on genuine collaboration and co-design principles
  • longer funding cycles, more holistic resourcing for organisations and an end to precarious funding arrangements.

“Whoever forms the next Federal Government must address the need to increase basic income support to at least $67/day, increase Rent Assistance by 50% and invest substantially in building more social housing,” concluded Ms MacDonald.