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Food or bills - pensioners facing stark options

27 August 2012

Food or bills - pensioners facing stark options

“For me it is very humbling to see these pensioners, who have probably worked all their lives, having to seek out charity to help them with everyday living costs, often for the first time in their lives.” Carol Ennis

For 84-year-old Naomi, every day means tough decisions that can include whether to eat or pay a bill.

Before she finally came to The Salvation Army for help, the fiercely independent pensioner’s already finely stretched finances took a number of blows when she accidently partially flooded her small unit. An expensive operation followed and she was hit soon after with a large power bill.

“I was in a sort of desperation you know, walking around my unit and thinking, ‘What am I going to do,’” she says.

With one daughter facing her own financial struggles and one raising a child with a severe disability, Naomi says she could not ask her family for help.

“I bought bread and coffee and tea. And I bought butter…That’s how I lived for three months saving money for the power. The situation was terrible.”

Finally, still desperate, she sought help, and was given electricity and food vouchers through the Salvos.

“I heard somebody say that The Salvation Army was helping people. And then I feel terrible because I’m an independent person all of my life, I fix my own problems. But I could work…now I cannot work.

“I feel like a beggar to ask for this money…but Carol (from Chatswood Salvos) is such a beautiful person, so encouraging.

“When I left…I was crying.”

Even in affluent suburbs likes Chatswood (NSW), according to local Salvation Army Welfare Manager Carol Ennis, increasing energy bills are significantly adding to an alarming growth in demand for welfare.

She says: “Clients, especially those on a small fixed pension or income, are almost crying, saying, ‘I don’t turn the lights on until it’s really dark, I wrap myself in a blanket, or I go out to the shopping centre because it is air conditioned or warm.’

“They are having to make really hard choices. They don’t have light and heating, or they don’t buy food.”

A recent Salvation Army poll of 1,700 clients clearly showed that many are increasingly struggling.

The poll revealed 52 per cent had gone without meals and 29 per cent could not afford a decent meal at least once a day. Fifty-nine per cent have cut down on basic necessities and 45 per cent are pawning and selling possessions to make ends meet.

Carol says the service is strongly encouraging clients to arrange to have regular amounts deducted each fortnight towards their bills and can offer some help with vouchers.

The service also refers clients with large power bills to the NSW Government Home Power Savings Program.

Services such as The Salvation Army Moneycare (which carried out well over 6,000 counselling sessions throughout NSW, ACT and Qld in the last year) can also help with budgeting, negotiating with debtors and providing no interest loans (NLIS) to those who meet certain criteria.

However, Carol says, it is of great concern that however well managed, small incomes can still only stretch so far. She says: “Power’s going to get more expensive again. It’s a massive problem.”

She is determined to stay independent, but has been worried again over the winter months, with more power increases, and says: “I try to save; I try to put a little money apart for the electricity. But I never can catch up. And now the winter bill is the one that I really tremble about.”

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