New report reveals soaring demand for community services from increased cost of living 

Community services including homelessness, mental health and family violence organisations are facing soaring demand this Christmas due to the cost-of-living crisis, continuous disasters and the ongoing impacts of Covid-19, a new report has found.

The report, Helping people in need during a cost-of-living crisis, based on the Australian Community Sector Survey undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW Sydney for ACOSS and the State and Territory Councils of Social Service, and supported by Bendigo Bank, found that only three per cent of the 1,470 organisations surveyed said their main service can always meet demand.

In 2020, when the Coronavirus Supplement was in place, that figure was 19 per cent, before dropping to six per cent in 2021 after the Supplement was withdrawn by the Federal Government.

Housing and homelessness services are particularly stretched. Not a single one of the 180 services in the survey said they could ‘always’ meet demand and as many as one in 10 said they could never meet demand.

Some 66 per cent of organisations reported increased demand in 2022, including 85 per cent of those delivering financial, legal and emergency support; and 80 per cent of those delivering domestic and family violence services.

One CEO of a child and youth service in Victoria said: “In almost thirty years in community service provision, I have never experienced a more challenging environment.”

Meanwhile, 61 per cent of service providers reported increased poverty and disadvantage among their clients and 64 per cent reported that clients’ needs were increasingly complex.

The increased demand and complexity of need has put extra pressure on community service staff, with 54 per cent of organisations reporting their main service is affected by staff burnout.

This was especially high among domestic and family violence services where 81 per cent reported staff exhaustion.

Many organisations are struggling to recruit and retain staff, with 40 per cent reporting their main service is unable to find enough staff and 36 per cent struggling to find volunteers.

Only one in eight said they receive enough funding to meet community demand.

One frontline worker at a family services organisation in Queensland said: “We are underfunded and understaffed to meet the increasing needs.”

ACOSS Deputy CEO Edwina MacDonald said the report laid bare the shocking impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

“It is clear that community services are experiencing something unprecedented. Intensifying financial pressures on top of disasters are really affecting people and overly straining providers this Christmas,” she said.

“As people increasingly search for help, services face higher operational costs and staff shortages, further limiting their ability to assist their communities.

“Government relies on our sector to serve the public interest on its behalf. It is therefore vital that it properly fund services and invest in service sector staff who have been doing an incredible job in tough circumstances.

“People across the country know just how hard-working, resilient and committed our sector has been during three, long years of pandemic, disasters and economic turmoil.

“But the challenges of demand, complexity of need, poverty and disadvantage, combined with the past decade of chronic underfunding, are pushing community services beyond breaking point, and that cannot be tolerated,.

“If our sector is to support everyone seeking help, then strengthening our workforce and suitably funding essential services is crucial.”

Foodbank Australia CEO, Brianna Casey, said demand for food relief is now even higher than during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“On any given day, over half a million households in Australia are struggling to meet their food needs and 306,000 are receiving assistance from food relief organisations,” she said.

“We know how important it is for people to have access to nutritious food, yet the rising costs of energy, fuel, groceries and rent have put this fundamental need beyond the reach of more and more people with no respite in sight.”

Full Stop Australia Chief Executive Officer, Hayley Foster, said family and sexual violence services are completely overwhelmed and underfunded.

“We’ve seen a shadow pandemic when it comes to family and sexual violence. Never have we seen such overwhelming demand. Indeed, these are the only major crime categories that continue to climb across the country. Yet, many services haven’t seen an increase in funding to meet that demand resulting in a situation where it’s currently chance if victim-survivors get the support they need when they need it.’ she said.

“Right now, many services are so underfunded that they can barely deal with the crises on their doorstep, let alone provide the ongoing support survivors need to heal and recover. It’s simply heartbreaking.”

Financial Rights Legal Centre CEO, Karen Cox, said her organisation has struggled to recruit and retain specialist staff who are equipped to respond to the demand for legal assistance in the midst of numerous climate-related disasters and the cost-of-living crisis.

“Our dedicated insurance and debt lawyers are never able to answer all of the calls that come through on our specialist advice lines. This has been particularly true following the huge loss of property in this year’s unprecedented floods.

“On top of that, more and more people are turning to us for help as the cost-of-living crisis hits hard.”

Key findings: 

  • Only three per cent of survey respondents reported they can always meet demand
  • Two thirds reported increased demand in 2022
  • 61 per cent reported increased poverty and disadvantage among their clients
  • 2 in 5 respondents said waiting times for their service had increased (39 per cent)
  • A third (32 per cent) said their service had turned people away due to lack of capacity
  • 30 per cent reported referring people to other services due to lack of capacity
  • 16 per cent said their main service had to close a waiting list, as it was too long
  • 81 per cent of staff in domestic and family violence services had seen staff exhaustion or burn out in their main service during 2022
  • 63 per cent of survey participants said cost of living pressures had affected the people or communities that their organisation supports.

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