Families feel the big chill

Worst is yet to come: Vinnies client support for St George, Jane Marsh said demand for power bills emergency relief will soar. Picture John Veage
Worst is yet to come: Vinnies client support for St George, Jane Marsh said demand for power bills emergency relief will soar. Picture John Veage

St Vincent de Paul Society workers are being inundated with requests by Sutherland Shire and St George residents for assistance to pay their electricity bills.

In the first three weeks of the financial year, Vinnies has already distributed more EAPA (Energy Accounts Payment Assistance) vouchers than it did in the entire three months of winter last year.

Vouchers are worth $50 each with people allowed to claim up to $500 maximum each financial year.

Call for help: Vinnies Sutherland Shire regional council president Tony Cranney said his team of volunteers visit about 50 families a week. Picdture: John Veage

Call for help: Vinnies Sutherland Shire regional council president Tony Cranney said his team of volunteers visit about 50 families a week. Picdture: John Veage

In Sutherland Shire, Vinnies handed out $46,400 in electricity vouchers in the 2016-17 financial year.

“We have handed out $8,150 in vouchers so far this financial year (since July 1),” a Vinnies spokesman said.

“We expect to hand out around $97,000 in vouchers in Sutherland Shire in the 2017-18 financial year.”

In St George, $33,400 in electricity vouchers were handed out by Vinnies in the 2016-17 financial year.

“So far, in the first month of this financial year, $7,400 in vouchers have been handed out,” the spokesman said.

“We are on track to hand out around $88,000 in electricity vouchers in St George this financial year 2017-2018.”

Vinnies Sutherland Shire regional council president Tony Cranney said his team of volunteers visit about 50 families a week.

“Virtually every family is affected by the higher prices for electricity,” he said.

“In some cases they they have to make a choice between paying other bills including deciding how much in groceries they can buy.

Support network: Last year 55,000 people across NSW were helped by Vinnies with EAPA vouchers to help pay their electricity bills. There will be many more this year.

Support network: Last year 55,000 people across NSW were helped by Vinnies with EAPA vouchers to help pay their electricity bills. There will be many more this year.

“We may help in other ways such as providing groceries so they can pay their electricity bills.

“The main thing is to make sure the families don’t get disconnected because it costs  extra welfare to get them reconnected.

“In addition, many of the families we have visited have carried the liability on their last electricity bill if it was not paid in full, so the next bill can escalate.”

Mr Cranney said people are still to receive their power bill for winter carrying the 20 per cent increase in electricity prices.

“We highly encourage everyone to get on a payment plan for their electricity bills. They can have money for power bills deducted automatically from their account,” he said. 

“About the minimum needed to pay for electricity is just under $30 a week. This is for a single person living in a small unit.”

Vinnies client support officer for St George, Jane Marsh, said while demand is traditionally high at the beginning of the financial year, there are added circumstances this year.

“The worst is yet to come. The 20 per cent increase in electricity prices has yet to hit and people still haven’t received their winter bill.

“I expect September and October will be pretty full-on in the number of people asking for vouchers.

“Historically, from July 1 we do issue a lot more vouchers,” Ms Marsh said.

“This is when people are able to apply for vouchers if they have already received their $500 allocation for the previous financial year.

“We can provide them with more than $500 if they are in extreme financial hardship.

“People are also finding it really difficult due to rents being so high in St George.”

One St George family recently came to Vinnies at Hurstville for assistance after the husband lost his job and had to wait six weeks for Centrelink payments.

The husband and wife, who asked not to be named, have four children aged between one and seven years.

Her husband was on WorkCover payments after he was mugged on a train.

The family was already facing financial strain after the rental on their two-bedroom house increased from $390 to $590 over the past four years.

After the husband lost his job in February the family had to wait six weeks before they could receive Centrelink payments.

“Our outgoings were $2600 a fortnight and we receive $2000 a fortnight from Centrelink,” his wife said.

“Vinnies gave us $500 in EAPA vouchers which was our limit for the financial year and said we could come back at the start of the new financial year.

“The vouchers have helped us a lot, plus the local credit union was very understanding and put our $400 a month loan repayments on hold, so we have been able to stay afloat.”

Vinnies is the largest provider of the NSW Government’s EAPA vouchers.

Vinnies chief executive officer Jack de Groot said that last year in the first quarter of the 2016-17 financial year (July, August and September) Vinnies distributed approximately $360,000 in electricity vouchers across NSW.

“This financial year, since July 1, Vinnies has already given out $400,000 worth of vouchers,” Mr de Groot said.

“This is a significant increase with more has been given out in emergency relief in one month than in the whole of winter last year.”