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The communities left behind in the pandemic

25 May 2020 at 12:38 pm
Maggie Coggan
“We are essentially putting a Band-Aid on what could become a larger societal issue,” charity leader says.

Maggie Coggan | 25 May 2020 at 12:38 pm


The communities left behind in the pandemic
25 May 2020 at 12:38 pm

“We are essentially putting a Band-Aid on what could become a larger societal issue,” charity leader says.  

With over one million temporary visa holders excluded from the Commonwealth’s coronavirus financial assistance, charities are stepping up. But sector leaders say they are struggling to connect with, and service, the rising number of people in need.  

The economic consequences of COVID-19 have been devastating, particularly for those working in retail and hospitality industries. 

While the government’s $130 billion JobKeeper package is designed to prop up workers that have lost employment during the pandemic, international students, working holiday makers, refugees, asylum seekers, and skilled temporary migrants – who are overrepresented in these industries – have been left out of the program and now face destitution. 

The digital platform Ask Izzy, which connects people in crisis to emergency services, released data earlier in the month that found food and emergency relief services continued to be the most requested search category as the community faces the economic impact of the pandemic. 

Charities struggle under weight of demand 

In the absence of federal support, Victoria, the ACT, Tasmania and Queensland have rolled out cash relief programs to support temporary visa holders, while charities such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Settlement Services International (SSI), and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre have stepped up to fill remaining gaps. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, 600 people on temporary visas have sought support from NSW-based charity SSI, and the charity has now opened an office two days a week distributing food packages to refugee and asylum seeker families and individuals.

Greg Benson, SSI’s general manager of client services, told Pro Bono News that the support they were able to provide was only dealing with a small part of the problem. 

“The challenge for charities is the demand for practical assistance, [which is] beyond our collective capability without broader support from the community, the federal and state governments,” Benson said. 

“Our concern is that right now we are essentially putting a Band-Aid on what could become a larger societal issue.” 

While the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s role in the crisis is not to provide emergency support packages, CEO Conny Lenneberg said she had also witnessed a huge increase in demand for support that the charity sector was not able to handle on its own. 

“It’s a huge pressure because you can’t always find solutions for these problems. For example, there’s a dearth of social housing and so my staff are incredibly distressed because they can’t provide a direct solution for that,” Lenneberg told Pro Bono News. 

The challenge of connecting with those who need help 

While emergency food-aid is available for struggling migrant families, SSI said that the travel involved to pick up food packages was a barrier for many. 

Lenneberg said that for many people of refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds it was also important for them to forge their own way in Australia. Those who had lost their jobs often did not want to rely on hand-outs from charities. 

“One guy we work with, Sammi, who’s got two boys in school and a wife at home, was working six shifts a week and now he’s got three shifts, so how does he pay rent and how does he cover the bills?” she said. 

“People like Sammi have lost their jobs because they’re in industries that have been shut down, and they want proper income support and not to be dependent on the charity of others.” 

She pointed to a case with a refugee community in the outer-southeastern Melbourne suburb of Frankston, where around 35 children had completely disengaged from their schooling following the switch to remote learning.

“We did a small study just last week to figure out what’s going on, and we realised that they weren’t seeking help because their parents are really ashamed,” Lenneberg said. 

“They’ve had jobs, and now they’ve lost those jobs and they don’t know how to navigate the social security system, or where to go for support… and when people are ashamed, they shut down and become ever more isolated.” 

She said that the recently formed Charities Crisis Cabinet, which is made up of a range of prominent social sector leaders, would be critical in tackling this problem.  

“How do we raise the resources to allow us to keep responding to what is increasing demand and how do we ensure that we respond to that demand in the most effective and coordinated way?,” she said.

Benson added that what was really needed was consistent government support. 

“Our call is for the New South Wales and Commonwealth government to provide financial assistance to migrant and temporary visa holders,” he said. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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