The strain on The Salvation Army’s welfare services in the wake of the recession, the Christchurch quakes and increasing client referrals from government departments means some services are approaching breaking point.
The Salvation Army goes into its annual Red Shield Appeal this year running at full capacity and, despite generous donations of food from New Zealand companies, with diminishing resources, says Salvation Army Secretary for Social Services Major Pam Waugh. The appeal is the main source of funding for the Army’s welfare work.
While demand for services appears to have plateaued since the recession, Salvation Army welfare services, such as food banks and budget counselling, are currently up 70 per cent and 189 per cent respectively since the start of the recession in 2008. Social workers, who are key to helping solve the myriad of financial and social problems most clients face, have seen their workloads increase 94 per cent in the same period.
Welfare policy changes later this year, and current changes at Housing New Zealand, are expected to bump up demand for budgeting, social work services and emergency housing.
At the same time, individual welfare centres applying for community trust grants have seen the amounts available decline in recent years. The government’s Community Response Fund – established to assist NGOs cope with the rising tide of demand during and after the recession, and increased referrals for budgeting from WINZ and Housing New Zealand – is insufficient and about to be disestablished.
“The New Zealand public has always been an equal partner in the work we do in our most deprived neighbourhoods,” Major Waugh says. “This year will be the most critical Salvation Army annual appeal in decades if we are to maintain current levels of service.”
At ground level, the real pressures fall on both beneficiary and working families unable to cope with insufficient incomes, she says. They are easily nudged into a spiral of crushing debt by unexpected costs, medical bills, power price increases, school fees, or rent rises – manageable for most households, but potentially catastrophic for fragile family budgets.
“No matter how frugal these families are, parents face the tough choices of paying the rent – often eating up 70 per cent or more of the household budget – or feed the family for the week, pay school costs or the power,” Major Waugh says. “If food wins over rent, then they face eviction and homelessness, and this is what we are seeing daily.”
Evictions, overcrowded and substandard accommodation, declining health, increasing family violence and the use of alcohol, drugs or gambling to escape the constant strain are often the downstream results of unmanageable debt.
With a stagnant job market combined with increasing living costs, welfare centre staff report a growing desperation and despondency among clients, says Major Waugh.
In recent years, some centres have reported a rise in the number of clients losing hope of escaping their dire circumstances and raising the subject of suicide. One centre reported that some teenage children of clients had considered suicide, including one who entered into a suicide pact with his mother in the lead-up to their eviction.