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