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Hawkesbury’s working hungry: Unprecedented crisis as homelessness and hunger spreads

Jun 27, 2023

Homelessness and food insecurity is surging in the Hawkesbury, creating a desperate situation for many individuals and families who are now seeking help from local charities for the first time.

Linda Strickland, the founder of Windsor-based charity Hawkesbury Helping Hands, said she has never witnessed such dire circumstances.

“What is happening now in the Hawkesbury – food relief, homelessness, is a disaster. The stories we’re hearing are devastating. I awoke early one morning to another message of two people living in a tent with a dog,” Ms Strickland, said.

“In the almost 12 years since we started, never seen anything like we are seeing of late. We are shifting anywhere up to 20 pallets of food a week,” she said.

The cost of living crisis is spreading to people from more affluent suburbs who have never needed charity.

Many of those seeking help are individuals who would not typically be associated with homelessness – people with mortgages, children in school, and stable jobs. The rising cost of living, including soaring interest rates and electricity prices, has made it increasingly difficult for them to afford basic needs like food.

Heartbreaking stories continue to emerge. One recent example is an 18-year-old woman who reached out to HHH because she couldn’t afford rent and had been living in her car, enduring freezing temperatures. She received essential items such as pillows, blankets, warm clothing, and a food pack, providing some comfort and sustenance in her difficult situation.

The magnitude of the crisis is underscored by groups of people living in tents or makeshift campsites. The challenge lies in finding suitable places where they can access support services, food, and hygiene facilities. The absence of camping sites close to Windsor, where these essential services are available, presents a significant hurdle. Additionally, the plight of homeless individuals with pets adds another layer of difficulty in finding suitable accommodation.

The number of people sleeping on the streets of New South Wales has soared in the past year. The latest NSW Street Count released last week counted 1,623 rough sleepers, a 34 per cent increase compared to last year’s total of 1,207 but those figures were counted in February and since then economic conditions have deteriorated further.

“We need to do better, we need to drive these numbers down and provide our most vulnerable with access to safe and secure housing,” Minister for Housing and Homelessness Rose Jackson said. “We must ensure we are supporting our regional and rural communities. I have seen firsthand the housing issues experienced in regional and rural areas”

The demand on the services of charities such as Hawkesbury Helping Hands, has never been greater.

The crisis is expected to worsen with electricity prices soaring. Residents have expressed their concern on social media.

“Our electricity has gone up 25% how can ANYONE afford this!?” one resident posted while another said they had received an email from AGL about a 33% increase starting the following week.

Federal Member for Macquarie Susan Templeman said “Inflation is really hurting people’s budgets. The main pressure is increased mortgage payments, so it’s more important that we make non-inflationary decisions.

“In July measures for cost of living assistance will start to flow. For some families the big difference will be cheaper child care. There will be cheaper medicines from September 1 as well as $500 towards energy bills and $650 for small businesses.  There will also be a tripling  of rent assistance for people on welfare.”

But she admitted in the meantime “ we are in a bit of limbo. During the GFC the government gave cash handouts, if we were to do that now it would only add to inflation.”

Hawkesbury Helping Hands (HHH) has been at the forefront of providing essential support to those in need, offering food, blankets, shoes, sleeping bags, tents, pet supplies, and advice on support services and accommodation. However, the organization relies entirely on donations to sustain its work.

For the first time, there are people seeking help from outside the LGA from areas traditionally regarded as more affluent. HHH has received calls of help from people in areas, including Glenorie, Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill, Blacktown, and Penrith. Young and middle-aged workers with mortgages are taking charity meals for the first time. Veterans who have become homelessness are also seeking help.

“They are embarrassed as they are forced to choose between spending on food and meeting other rising living costs,” Ms Strickland said. “Parents are missing meals so their children can eat.”

Hawkesbury Helping Hands is shifting 20 pallets of food a week to feed people in need.

In response to the growing demand, HHH has pledged to extend its operating hours and days. They plan to increase awareness through posters around the town, reassuring those living in cars that it is okay to seek assistance and there is no shame in seeking support.

Despite the tireless efforts of HHH and other organizations, gaps in the system have become apparent. A Facebook post lamented the case of a 16-year-old who remains on the streets despite exhausting all available channels for assistance. 

HHH sought a sleeping bag for the young individual, relying on other rough sleepers to watch over him for the night. Ms Strickland said this incident highlights the need for comprehensive support systems to address the complexities of homelessness and ensure that no individual falls through the cracks.

However, she remained frustrated by some elected representatives using the charity for their own political purposes and she said it was time they provided more meaningful support.

“Our unit is private property and if anyone wants to visit us again they may want to bring their cheque book,” she said.

 

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