POWER SHOCK

Local res­i­dents forced to cut food spend­ing to pay soar­ing util­ity bills

McIvor Times - - FRONT PAGE - By DAVID RAK

ST VIN­CENT de Paul’s Heathcote branch has re­ported more de­mand for help as en­ergy bills con­tinue to soar.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion, which helps peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing poverty and in­equal­ity, con­firmed de­mand is ris­ing in Heathcote in line with the cost of every­day living.

It co­in­cides with new re­search from iS­elect show­ing a stag­ger­ing nine out of 10 Vic­to­rian house­holds wor­ried about win­ter en­ergy bills.

Less than one in three re­spon­dents to the sur­vey said they were able to pay their en­ergy bills eas­ily.

Vin­nies said they had seen a large in­crease in de­mand for ser­vices in Heathcote and district dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two years.

Vol­un­teers vis­ited and pro­vided as­sis­tance to an ad­di­tional 288 peo­ple in 2016/17, an in­crease of 58 per cent from 2014/15.

The ris­ing cost of util­i­ties has put a strain on peo­ple within the area with util­ity as­sis­tance in­creas­ing by 83 per cent over the past 12 months.

Bendigo Re­gional Coun­cil of St Vin­cent de Paul vice-pres­i­dent Carol Messer said the or­gan­i­sa­tion sees an av­er­age of 20 peo­ple per week seek­ing as­sis­tance.

“We are find­ing peo­ple get over­whelmed by util­ity bills and let them ac­cu­mu­late,” she said.

“Util­i­ties like heat­ing are things peo­ple can’t go without, es­pe­cially in a cold win­ter like we’ve had.

“We see peo­ple from a wide de­mo­graphic, but those living on gov­ern­ment in­come are the hard­est hit by ris­ing util­i­ties be­cause they have no flex­i­bil­ity with their in­come.”

Mrs Messer said help is avail­able but it is of­ten hard for peo­ple to ask for as­sis­tance.

“Main­tain­ing con­fi­den­tial­ity in Heathcote is vi­tal. Pri­vacy is cru­cial in a small town and ev­ery­thing is com­pletely con­fi­den­tial and pri­vate,” she said.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate and re­spect that ask­ing for help is very dif­fi­cult.

“Our first re­sponse is to lis­ten and un­der­stand what the un­der­ly­ing needs are. Peo­ple may come for food but they might also have a large elec­tric­ity bill.

“We try to re­spond to the deep­est need and find what can lift peo­ple out of a cri­sis.”

St Vin­cent de Paul pol­icy and re­search man­ager Gavin Dufty said peo­ple were in line to cop big­ger bills be­cause con­sump­tion was up along with a price hike of nearly 10 per cent at the start of the year.

He said res­i­dents were go­ing to sig­nif­i­cant lengths to cope with the ris­ing costs.

‘‘Pen­sion­ers use strate­gies like go­ing to bed early and go­ing down to pub­lic places like su­per­mar­kets just so some­one else is pay­ing the bills other than them, ’’ Mr Dufty said.

‘‘If you’ve got chil­dren, you’ve got to put food on the ta­ble, so the util­ity bill has to wait.

‘‘Par­ents are par­tic­u­larly at risk of late fees and dis­con­nec­tion, be­cause you can’t not feed your chil­dren.

‘‘School ex­cur­sions, hol­i­days and little treats might get can­celled.

‘‘So what you’ll see is ris­ing en­ergy prices don’t al­ways re­flect in dis­con­nec­tions; they get hid­den in other de­ci­sions peo­ple make.’’

He said Au­gust was a par­tic­u­larly stress­ful time be­cause bills co­in­cided with coun­cil and wa­ter rates.

iS­elect spokesper­son Laura Crow­den said house­holds in Heathcote could be cut­ting back on daily ne­ces­si­ties in or­der to pay their bills.

‘‘With Heathcote homes shiv­er­ing through a cold win­ter, it’s con­cern­ing more than 1.4 mil­lion Vic­to­rian house­holds may be us­ing their home’s heat­ing less due to con­cerns about en­ergy costs, ’’ she said.

‘‘And it’s not just heat­ing, our study sug­gests many house­holds are also cut­ting back on es­sen­tials such as food and cloth­ing to af­ford their en­ergy bills.’’

The run­away power prices have led to the Vic­to­rian Coun­cil of So­cial Ser­vices call­ing for the state gov­ern­ment to in­tro­duce an in­de­pen­dent en­ergy bro­ker.

A bro­ker would find bet­ter power deals on peo­ple’s be­half.

‘‘As a con­sumer, you could call the bro­ker and tell them about your house­hold en­ergy needs,’’ the agency said.

‘‘They would then sug­gest the best deal for you. They wouldn’t be paid on com­mis­sion or by the power com­pa­nies, mean­ing you could trust their ad­vice.

‘‘Pri­vate en­ergy bro­kers al­ready ex­ist for busi­nesses, help­ing com­pa­nies pay less for power.

‘‘So if it’s good enough for busi­ness then why not the rest of us?’’

Vin­nies wel­comes fi­nan­cial do­na­tions from the com­mu­nity to keep up with the de­mand for their vol­un­teer­run ser­vices.

Visit www.vin­nies.org.au/do­nate to do­nate on­line or phone 13 18 12.

‘ Pen­sion­ers use strate­gies like go­ing to bed early and go­ing down to pub­lic places — Gavin Dufty

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