Spike in demand and fewer donations puts charities under strain

By Daneka Hill

DURING the COVID-19 crisis, people are turning back to the churches for salvation.

Not for their sermons, but for their charity.

The sudden demand on their time and resources has brought some local churches to the brink, placing pressure on an already overworked and shrinking pool of ageing volunteers.

And as unemployment skyrockets, donations are falling off.

Since Victoria’s COVID-19 shutdown hit, the Salvation Army in Echuca-Moama has seen demand for its services double.

Auxilliary lieutenant Sonia Edwards said the spike in demand was not being caused by an increase in numbers; instead, it was driven by the fact those reaching out were in twice as much trouble.

“It’s a different world right now — we are seeing new people with greater needs and we are struggling to keep on top of that,” Sonia said.

“These people have never used our services before, and now they’ve gone a few weeks without payment and they are in trouble.”

For the Salvos it’s been impossible to pinpoint a single demographic most at need. The only common factor has been recent and sudden job loss.

When it comes to falling donations, the Salvation Army provides the most glaring example with its famous Red Shield Appeal.

Launched with the intention of raising the usual target of $8 million during April, May and June, this year’s Appeal was run entirely online due to lock-down restrictions, ending a 55-year door-to-door fundraising tradition.

Even worse, the people the Salvos normally door-knocked during the day — the retired and the elderly — did not connect with the online donation strategy at all.

In the first four days of the 2020 appeal, $1.6 million was in the bank, with an additional $500,000 pledged by the Australian Minderoo Foundation.

In those same four days last year, $4.2 million was raised.

Locally the Echuca-Moama Salvation Army was aiming for $12,000 in donations — the exact amount raised last year.

As of June 1, $4000 was reached.

“We are really struggling to get the donations coming in,” Sonia said.

“People are not using our online services — a lot of the ones who do donate are the older ones and they don't know how to go online.”

The Echuca Salvos’ only lifeline has been accepting cash donations in their hall at 50-52 Sturt St, Echuca.

Of the $4000 raised, $3200 was cash handed during the hall’s limited opening hours.

“We understand there are more people struggling and unable to give right now,” Sonia said.

“I hate asking for money, but the fact is we need it.”

Anglicare Echuca is in the same boat, recording “significant, unprecedented numbers of people” accessing its homelessness support.

Its youth and community services program manager Kirsten Rabbitt said requests for rental arrears support and material aid doubled between February and March.

If a tenant spends more than 14 consecutive days in arrears, they can be asked to vacate the property.

In a COVID-19 parallel, crisis accommodation requests almost doubled in March and April.

As of June 1 Anglicare's crisis accommodation in the twin towns was at full capacity.

“It’s placing a significant strain on resources,” Kirsten said, warning people who had resorted to living week-to-week in motels and tourism stays were now becoming a new at-risk group from the start of this month as restrictions eased and tourism resumed.

Fortunately for Anglicare, its funding model is different to the Salvation Army, relying more on government funding and fees paid by member agencies.

Kirsten reported there had been no obvious reduction in support and donations received.

The Salvation Army and Anglicare are large-scale crisis support charities.

When it comes to the smaller churches and charities in town, groups have either fallen apart or not felt the pinch.

The Echuca Community Church is an extreme case of volunteer loss, rather than donation loss.

The church’s only organised assistance, a Foodbank and donation centre run from a member’s garage, will never return after the recent death of tireless and devoted congregation member Pauline Aitkens.

Two weeks after Victoria enforced its COVID-19 shut down, Pauline died from terminal cancer aged 81.

For 18 years Pauline and her husband Jim ran the food relief centre from their Campaspe Esplanade garage.

Now, without her time and the garage to rely on, Echuca Community Church's Pastor David McAllen is “unsure” about the future.

He said the church’s best chance of repeating what Pauline had done for it could only be possible if they worked with other churches after the pandemic was over.

“We are really unsure how we are going to go forward because our church doesn’t have the resources to set it up again, or run anything similar,” he said.

He said those who used the garage relief centre — often more than 100 a day — were “people we never knew, they never attended a church service”.

It raises the issue of how churches can continue to give to those who would never give back to the church, especially as more and more Australians turn away from religion, leaving churches to rely on the elderly for most of their donations and volunteer work.

In the 1966 Australian Bureau of Statistics census, 89 per cent of Australians classified themselves as religious.

By 2016, 60 per cent of Australians were religious — and the most religious age group was those 65 years and over at 73 per cent.

The category ‘no religion’ jumped from 0.8 per cent in the ’60s to 30 per cent in 2016.

A few streets east of Echuca Community Church is the Epicentre Church, which runs the Epicentre Op-Shop on Ogilvie Ave.

The store was closed for several weeks and only recently reopened for three hours a day instead of its usual six.

Epicentre Op-Shop manager Evie Hoskings said COVID-19 had affected the shop minimally — a decrease in opening hours, an increase in furniture donations, and a more critical nature in the housing assistance cases the only changes.

“We are doing the same level with regards to sales [per hour], but we are getting heaps more donations. I don’t know what it is, if people were spring cleaning while in isolation or something, but there is a lot more furniture being handed in to the store,” Evie said.

“We help a lot of people get set up who've been homeless. White-goods, furniture, kitchen utensils, sheets and things like that.

“We helped an elderly gentleman move into a nursing home recently. He had no family to help him shift his stuff and you could imagine it was hard for him to do things and stay safe during the shut-down.

“We also helped a gentleman who'd been living in a caravan for a couple of years settle into his new housing unit. He's been on the waiting list for a long, long time and he got approved in the middle of the shut-down.”

Evie said the gentleman had been living in the caravan in the bush for at least two years.

“Really roughing it,” she said.

● The Echuca-Moama Salvos’ online Red Shield Appeal can be accessed here: