The rising cost of living has flooded charitable organisations with those in need of a range of support services.
Rising inflation and the consequential pressure on cost of living expenses is being felt across a broad swath of the state’s economy, and few are insulated from the effects.
It’s been just over a year since the Reserve Bank of Australia announced the first cash rate hike in more than 12 years.
The RBA increased the cash rate from 0.10 per cent to 0.35 per cent in May 2022, the first increase since November 2010.
There have been 12 hikes in the past 14 months, with the cash rate now sitting at 4.1 per cent.
Charitable organisations are struggling with the rising demand for their services as household finances become increasingly stretched.
In May, St Patrick's Community Support Centre had such a high volume of demand it was close to running out of food.
St Pat’s chief executive Michael Piu took to social media to share the news.
“A sad sign of the times … our cupboards are bare,” Mr Piu wrote.
“For the first time in 50 years we’re about to run out of dried and non-perishable food.”
In conversation with Business News, Mr Piu said St Pat’s had never faced a winter season without knowing if it would have enough food to get through.
Mr Piu said his call for help via social media was met with a flurry of donations and offers for assistance.
“But unfortunately, demand is so great that as fast as donations come in, they’re distributed to people across our community,” he said.
“In real terms, we’re serving 1,000 more meals a month than we were this time last year; and if you compare the figures to pre-COVID, demand has jumped 250 per cent.
“Across the board, we’ve seen demand increase for our services, from our pro-bono dental clinic to our assertive outreach workers providing intensive support for people experiencing rough sleeping.”
St Pat’s also provides accommodation, and Mr Piu said the increased housing costs were placing more pressure on operations.
“With a shortage of affordable, long-term homes for people to move into, we’re having to provide intensive supports for longer, which is putting extra pressure on our staff and resources,” he said.
“We’re so grateful for our sector partners, but we also know they’re equally overstretched at the moment.”
Using data from July 2022, the most recent Foodbank Hunger Report confirmed the most common reason households were experiencing food insecurity was the high cost of living.
“Looking at live data of people coming through our network each day, back in May 2021 we were seeing averages of around 300, 400, 500,” Ms O'Hara told Business News.
“In March this year, we’re seeing averages of 700, 800.
“In April, we had our busiest day ever with 1,048 households coming through our service in one day. It’s extreme and we haven’t seen the worst.”
Foodbank WA has more than 13,000 cardholders with approved access to its food relief.
Ms O'Hara said she was most concerned for the working poor and people with a home mortgage.
“In our last Hunger Report, 59 per cent of the people coming to us had a job and 23 per cent had a mortgage,” she said.
“That was last year, so what’s it going to be this year?”
Royal Flying Doctor Service Western Operations is the biggest charitable organisation in the state, according to Data & Insights.
RFDS WO chief executive Judith Barker said the rising cash rate meant operational costs were more expensive than ever.
“Our staff housing costs have gone up nearly $500,000 in the last 12 months,” Ms Barker told Business News.
“Our aviation costs have increased; fuel alone has gone up 29 per cent.
"Then there’s the rising cost of plane parts, clinical equipment and transporting our staff around WA.”
RFDS has five bases across the state and outreach to these locations is getting more costly.
Ms Barker said emergencies and urgent patient requests had increased by 13 per cent during the past year, with the service’s busiest regions those furthest from Perth: the Kimberley and Pilbara.
“That makes them the most expensive retrievals for us to deliver,” she said.
“Although its more expensive, we’re not going to stop what we’re doing and we’re here for those people, but it means we’re needing to look elsewhere for extra funding.
“As much as the WA community keeps supporting us with amazing contributions – we just raised $1 million through Flying Doctor Day in May – more and more donations go to cover cost pressures we’re facing.
“While we still put funding towards our strategy and innovation.
"We’re depending on it more to simply operate.”
Ms Barker said she was concerned about the health impacts cost of living pressures were having on the people RFDS supported.
“I do worry that, with the increasing pressures faced by people we support, they’ll start to cut things they see as choice, such as food and medication and all those things that go to good health,” she said.
“That will put them more at risk and then we’ll also see an increase in workload for us because people are sacrificing their health to put food on the table for their children.”
“It’s an area that causes so much anguish and there’s so much stigma around financial distress,” Ms MacGregor told Business News.
“It’s something we’re called about a lot, but we’ve seen a big increase in the past 12 to 18 months.”
Nearly 100,000 people in WA called Lifeline in the 2023 financial year, which is a 7 per cent increase from FY22.
Lifeline has also recorded a 49 per cent increase in website traffic on its financial support pages.
According to Ms MacGregor, Lifeline tends to receive calls from people in the earlier stages of financial stress.
“People contact us when they’re emotionally overwhelmed and in distress, whereas they go to cost of living charities when they’re seeking support,” Ms MacGregor said.
“One of the things we’re seeing is shame and stigma around financial hardship.”
Ms MacGregor said Lifeline WA crisis supporters were dealing with more people calling to discuss their avoidant behaviours around financial management and share their guilt about their money struggles.
“They’re getting into a feedback loop where they avoid conversations that need to be had or actions they need to take, so they delay dealing with debt,” she said.
“That inaction prolongs and makes things worse. We have a lot of people in this cycle of shame calling us.”
The rising cost of living has led to an increase in calls to Lifeline WA, and the organisation has launched its first volunteer recruitment campaign in its 35-plus years in operation.
Ms MacGregor said Lifeline always had an adequate supply of people interested in volunteering, but that was changing as demand began to outstrip supply.
“If you unpack what’s inside cost of living, there’s so many factors such as mortgage stress, rental stress, inadequate housing, increasing expense of food and living costs,” she said.
“It’s an accumulation of many things making life very difficult, and economists are predicting at least one more rate increase, so the flow through of that is going to continue to hurt people.”
Ronald McDonald House Charities WA has launched expansion plans to accommodate growing demand for its services.
RMHC provides free programs, including housing, to families of children who suffer from serious illnesses requiring extended medical treatment.
Chief executive Peter King said growth of service delivery and quality was important to meet the demands of the community.
“It’s not just housing a family,” Mr King told Business News.
“It’s about providing them with a complete set of wrap-around supports to help maintain their wellbeing as a family, financially, emotionally and physically, while going through what are essentially some of the most difficult times of their lives.”
Peter King says families staying at Ronald McDonald House are facing exceptional cost of living pressures. Photo: David Henry
Mr King said RMHC had witnessed the pressure increased cost of living had on families it served, saying the impact was exceptional.
“We deal with a slice of society in our services so those families that are struggling out there are struggling when they come into our facilities and we’re trying to meet the demand,” he said.
“The biggest struggle we’ve had is demand outstripping supply, which is why we’re expanding.”
RMHC is scheduled to open 50 more rooms in January 2024, bolstered by a boost of $9.6 million from the state government.
RMHC currently has 47 rooms in a Nedlands facility near Perth Children’s Hospital and 14 additional rooms in the hospital building.
The funding has increased the state government’s investment in RMHC to $20.7 million over the next four years.
Mr King said the charity was finalising a lease agreement at a nearby facility, which would be announced in coming months.
RMHC has also expanded its education program, which connects ill children with qualified teachers to get up to speed with their education before school re-entry.
“When a kid goes through that experience, they’re disconnected from their school, education and friends, so when they return to that space, they feel behind before they even walk through the door,” Mr King said.
“This year, we’ve doubled capacity for this program and we’re now in a position to deliver up to 6,000 hours’ worth of tuition to these kids, meaning we can essentially have up to 400 kids on the program at any given time.
“That’s directly attributable to the Bass Family Foundation’s investment in us.
"They’ve been supporters for a long time, and they’ve seen the results we’ve been able to achieve with their money.”
While the vast majority of charitable organisations are feeling the pressure, some are also faced with a loss of funding.
In some cases, benefactors have also become financially stretched and are cutting back on their formerly generous donations.
Solaris Cancer Care is among those charities dealing with a potential drop-off in funds.
After more than 22 years in operation, Solaris is facing major funding cuts as individuals and companies are pulling back.
Solaris Cancer Care provides free supportive services for people being treated for cancer and continues to provide support beyond treatment completion.
The organisation welcomes people with any type of cancer and provides bereavement support for people who have lost a loved one to cancer.
Solaris chief executive Francis Lynch said the organisation had always relied on community support and fundraisers.
“Those fundraisers have been a mixture of corporate support and generous companies providing sponsorship,” Mr Lynch told Business News.
“From the beginning, we’ve also had incredibly generous individuals, giving personal donations.
“Over the years, we’ve received little bits of government support, including a small grant from the Health Department, but we rely on more than 95 per cent of our budget to come from personal donations and corporate sponsorship.”
“I suspect Solaris wouldn’t have got through 2020 if the state and federal governments hadn’t stepped up.”
Further financial pain in the form of rising interest rates added to Solaris’s woes.
“Funding started to decline almost exactly when the interest rates started to increase,” Mr Lynch said.
Two months after the first cash rate hike, Solaris was involved in Dry July, a national campaign raising funds for cancer charities.
Mr Lynch said Dry July had raised about $15 million per year for the five or six years prior to 2022. “Last July, it raised $8 million,” he said.
“We budgeted to generate a certain amount through Dry July, and we got less than half that target.”
Mr Lynch said Solaris’s last Christmas appeal generated 30 per cent of what was expected, and now, six months later, a major donor had cancelled its sponsorship.
“It was a very large source of funding that had been ongoing for 15 years and has now stopped,” he said.
“We lost money we didn’t expect to lose.
"That company has been hit with financial difficulties and said they can’t afford to support us anymore.
“We entered this financial year knowing we’d have a deficit but it’s looking much higher than we expected, double in fact, and that genuinely puts us into a situation of asking if there are services we need to stop.”
Although Solaris recently received a $100,000 donation from a private individual, the organisation required $300,000 to save cuts to services, according to Mr Lynch.
In 2022, Solaris provided $1.8 million worth of healthcare in free services.
Mr Lynch said integrative oncology and wellbeing support should be funded more by state and federal governments.
“We’re not expecting funding tomorrow but we’re going to keep pushing over the next few years to make the case that the type of service we do has benefits for the broader health system,” he said.
“The relief we’re providing actually saves the community and the government money, yet we haven’t been able to get operational support.”
Solaris launched a new service on May 29 for people living in the outer suburbs of Perth, for whom the central hubs are less accessible.
“We applied to Dry July Foundation and received a couple of small grants to bolster an outreach program in Joondalup, now underway,” Mr Lynch said.
“It sounds a bit weird considering we’re struggling financially in other areas, but we received funding very specifically to provide that service.
“The type of funding we really need is money that can support our whole operation.”
Despite the pockets of hope provided by continued funding and the new outreach service, the Solaris board is set to meet on June 15 to determine the future of the organisation’s services.