TOO many Echuca-Moama families may have to call off Christmas this year as drought and soaring bills leave more and more locals treading water.
Desperate residents are lining up at the doors of local welfare agencies, with the Salvation Army describing the need as “out of control”.
“I reckon there’s a good 20 per cent increase on last year,” Echuca-Moama Salvation Army auxiliary Lieutenant Sonia Edwards said.
“So many families are needing to face the cost of Christmas being cancelled.
“They're thinking, ‘we're not having Christmas this year because we’re struggling to find money to feed ourselves and put a roof over our heads, much less put presents under the tree’.”
Sonia said the drought was a major factor.
“A lot of people are walking off their farms or just struggling to pay the bills because they have to pay for water and food for their cattle.
“And bills in general are such an issue. Yesterday, out of the people we saw, we had six really huge electricity bills.
“Sadly we can't pay the full amount, we just haven't got the money.”
While local need is booming, Sonia said Echuca Salvation Army funds remain tight.
“It's so hard, because we want to help these people get through it but we just don't have the resources because there are so many people coming through,” she said.
“And we went well over budget last year which makes it extremely difficult.”
Sonia said the corps was trying to streamline its welfare assistance by insisting locals make appointments.
But with almost 30 families seeking help on some of their busiest days, staff are struggling to give adequate care.
“We had 28 yesterday, which means we could only give 10 minutes to each person and that's just not enough,” Sonia said.
“We're essentially just band-aiding the problem by giving them a voucher when we want to do so much more.
“We need to offer more time so we can really talk and get to know the people and understand the struggles they're going through.”
Many families have never sought assistance before and wait until they are desperate to raise the alarm.
“A lot have never had to seek help and feel really upset they have to come,” Sonia said.
“So then they wait and get themselves into a harder place than if they'd come earlier.
“And when they get these huge bills – what do they do? Many are under threat of being evicted from their accommodation.”
While the Salvation Army can help with food and bills, their hands are tied when it comes to housing.
Which is currently one of the greatest shortages in Echuca-Moama.
“We refer people to Anglicare and Haven; Home, Safe – but these organisations are struggling as well,” Sonia said.
“There is very little emergency accommodation in town and basically no long-term accommodation. I'm not sure what the waiting list is for ministry housing but it's a few years.
“But sadly we can't help with that – the Salvation Army can nationally but on the local level, no.
“We desperately need more accommodation in town – there are two vacant schools we could do a lot with.
“I know there is a lot of logistical stuff that needs to go on behind the scenes before that could ever happen and finances and making it suitable for accommodation.
“But something needs to be done.”
Sonia said as the Christmas season fast approaches, there was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness for too many families.
“By the time people walk in here they are absolutely stressed to the max,” she said.
“There's definitely a feeling that they can't get out of this mess.”
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