On an overcast October morning in Sydney’s south-west suburb of Liverpool, the time has just turned nine o’clock.
Commuters stream out of the train station and step off buses as they finish their trip to work. On Elizabeth Street, clangs from builders working on the canvas-clad construction site of the nine-storey Western Sydney University campus – one of two new university campuses in Liverpool – drift down to the footpath below.
Across the road in the churchyard of St Luke’s Anglican Church, groups of people fill round tables arranged under the gum trees. More arrive in ones and twos, greeting familiar faces as they find a seat.
Near the church, a team of volunteers unload a van full of boxes of perishable food. They cart the fruit, vegetables, bread and milk into another building and more helpers arrange it on tables in the tearoom. Others staff a table serving tea and coffee where they hand out teabags and chat with people in the queue.
“There are so many people who are making the best of a really bad situation that they found themselves in, by no fault of their own.”
Everyone is here for Fresh Food Tuesday, a food assistance program run by Anglicare and St Luke’s. For a gold coin donation, people with a pension, health care, Centrelink or immigration card can take home a bag of fresh food that would cost in excess of $40 at the supermarket.
The fresh produce is supplied by Food Bank, Australia’s largest food relief organisation. As well as Liverpool, the program operates in Mount Druitt, Fairfield, and now Lithgow.
The demand for material assistance in Liverpool is “overwhelming”, says Teresa Clark, manager of Anglicare’s food and financial assistance programs. “It is a really high need area.”
Liverpool is home to a young, culturally diverse population. The median age of residents is 33, five years below the national median. Over 60 per cent of residents have parents who were both born overseas, many from Iraq, Vietnam, Fiji, India and Lebanon. In June 2017, the unemployment rate in Liverpool was 5.16 per cent, which meant nearly 5,200 people in the area were out of work.
Among the 150 people who come to Fresh Food Tuesday each week are many newly arrived migrants. Some are refugees from Iraq and Syria who arrived in the one-off 12,000 humanitarian intake announced in 2015 by then-prime minister Tony Abbott.
“English as a second language is a large barrier as people try to adjust to the new society and the new norms,” says Clark. Church-run events and services like Fresh Food Tuesday are “a great way to meet new people and to start to integrate into the community.”
I meet Claribel, who has been coming to Fresh Food Tuesday on-and-off since 2012. She was diagnosed with postnatal depression when her son, now in kindergarten, was eight months old. “They gave me a checklist and I ticked yes to nearly everything,” she recalls. She was put in touch with a social worker from Anglicare who helped her manage her depression. Her now ex-husband worked casually, and without a stable income the family was struggling to pay the bills. Financial counselling helped her get back on her feet.
Originally from the Philippines, Claribel is currently completing her Auslan accreditation and works as a disability support worker. She has applied to do a Bachelor of Law. “I have a lot of dreams,” she tells SBS.
Michala, a single mum to four-year-old Michelle, has come to Fresh Food Tuesday since she moved to Liverpool from Tweed Heads in 2012. Three years ago, Michala escaped an abusive relationship. She lived in a refuge with her daughter for five months before they found a flat in Liverpool. Anglicare provided a social worker and helped Michala source a fridge, a couch, clothing, food vouchers and toys and books for Michelle.
Czech-born Michala, who has a mental illness and has applied for the disability support pension, receives a rental subsidy that runs out in February 2018. After that, she doesn’t know what she will do.
Her dilemma is a common one. High housing costs mean many Liverpool households are suffering rental stress, where more than 30 per cent of a family’s income is spent on rent.
“I've done the sums, and I seriously don't know how people manage to make their budgets work,” says Clark. “People are really, really resourceful, and the resilience that I see in people blows my mind, when every week it's the same battle. You pay your rent, you put food on the table, pay electricity bills that are going up everything month, and keep the kids in school and try to give them what society would say is a normal childhood…it's a constant battle every week.
“The mental toll that must take on people is huge. Yet they keep battling on, for the love of their family and the love of their community, they keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to make ends meet every week. I take my hat off to people who do that every day, every week.”
In Australia, there’s a popular misconception that people are to blame for their own poverty. Stereotypes like the ‘dole bludger’ don’t help, says Clark. “There are so many people who are making the best of a really bad situation that they found themselves in, by no fault of their own.”
Clark would like to see better policy around housing and energy prices to make both more affordable for low-income households. She would also like to see more help for people to find appropriate work. “When you're trying to help people to find employment, it's not a one-size-fits-all,” she says. “You can't just use a big stick to whack people and tell them to get a job. It does not work.”
Find out more about Anglicare’s food and financial assistance programs in Sydney
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.