One of our senior managers this morning said: 'I'm standing on the beach looking at the horizon and I can see the tsunami forming'.Samaritans CEO Brad Webb.
There appears to be a "tsunami" of demand forming for welfare services - as one provider put it - as charity organisations prepare for the reality of the impact of wide-ranging job losses and financial hardship to sink in within many households across the Hunter.
Most of the service providers who spoke with the Newcastle Herald in recent days said there had not yet been a spike in demand prompted by the economic impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But they said they expected demand to increase significantly in the coming weeks and months as the federal government's one-off $750 allowance was spent and savings drain from bank accounts.
"One of our senior managers this morning said: 'I'm standing on the beach looking at the horizon and I can see the tsunami forming'," Samaritans chief executive officer Brad Webb told the Newcastle Herald.
"Once it hits people, once the reality of their situation hits, we expect a demand increase particularly around financial counselling, the broader mental health supports that people are after, some emergency relief as well.
"We haven't see a huge spike in demand but we expect a delayed reaction for our crisis services as savings dry up and the reality for families of job losses sets in."
As the coronavirus forced all but those businesses deemed to be essential services to close in recent weeks, there have been many people who have found themselves suddenly out of work and with no income.
Increased welfare payments for job-seekers was introduced by the federal government, as well as a one-off $750 stimulus payment, but the future remains uncertain for many people.
Mr Webb said Samaritans, which provides a broad range of services, was using technology where possible to deliver services like mental health support and speech pathology.
But he said some services - particularly those delivered in the home - meant he still had some staff members working directly with people, on the front-line.
Salvation Army Hunter-based financial counsellor Kristen Hartnett said the cost and availability of food as well as rental security had become the most common concerns she had heard from clients in recent weeks.
Ms Hartnett said many people were struggling with how quick the "brutal" change in circumstances occurred.
"We know that this hasn't discriminated, income has dropped for so many people," she said.
"We're really encouraging people to take a breath and take time to be responsive and not reactive."
St Vincent de Paul, however, said it had experienced a "sharp increase" in demand for help with food and paying bills since the economic impacts of coronavirus started to become apparent, but there had not yet been a rise in the number of people seeking help at the city's Matthew Talbot Homeless Service.
Karen Soper, who manages the Matthew Talbot centre at Wickham, said her team was prepared to see new faces because of the COVID-19 crisis "in the near future".
Ms Soper said the Vinnies team had been split to allow for social distancing in accordance with health guidelines, with some working from home and others on-site.
"We also know that many more people are going to need help from Vinnies over the coming months, but our ways of raising funds for our services have been impacted by the coronavirus - for example, we have had to temporarily close most of our shops," she said.
"So we need the support of government and donors more than ever right now to ensure we can keep giving people the essentials, as well as providing much-needed services like the Matthew Talbot centre here in Newcastle.
"We recognise everyone is feeling anxious at the moment and we want to continue to provide hope and connect with people who may be feeling isolated."
Social distancing rules have meant that many of the organisations have had to change the way they deliver services.
Newcastle CBD's Soul Cafe, which feeds people in need, has gone from serving sit-down meals to handing out take-away cooked and frozen food from a marquee outside its Watt Street premises - enough so people do not have to return every day if possible.
CEO Rick Prosser said there had been offers of food donations - but the organisation was discouraging that for health reasons.
"Obviously there's a great deal of anxiety on everyone's face and in their voice," he said.
"We are planning for an increase in everything - we're uncertain whether that will come."
Macquarie Care, which runs homelessness service Our Backyard, has also begun to dispense free food from Macquarie Hall - fruit, vegetables and non-perishables from OzHarvest and sealed hot pies from Survivors R Us - for people who are not necessarily sleeping rough.
Project manager Pietro Di Girolamo said he had noticed many single-mother-families and people aged over 55 benefitting from the service recently.
The Our Backyard program provides a secure place for people to spend the night sleeping in their car, giving people access to kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities when they are sleeping rough.
Mr Di Girolamo said there were seven homeless people staying at the site, but two backpackers were expected to arrive on Friday - unable to return home and with nowhere else to go.
He said people who were homeless faced added difficulties as NSW residents were being told to stay home - even though there was an exemption for homeless people in the new legislation.
Mr Di Girolamo said it was a new problem specific to the ongoing health crisis that faced homeless people.
"I think this service here is going to increase its capacity," he said.
"I think the homeless person... they're going to really struggle."
Mr Webb, from Samaritans, said drought and bushfire leading into a global health pandemic meant "you've got a pretty fragile community".
But he - like other providers who spoke with the Newcastle Herald - praised the resilience already being shown across communities in the Hunter.
"What's been remarkable ... is the way in which communities are rallying and coming together," Mr Webb said.
"That's a function you saw happen in war time, where communities started putting aside differences.
"Things that mattered a month ago suddenly seem inconsequential in the current climate."
- All these services remain open to help those who need it. Details of how to get in touch with them can be found on each of their websites.
COVID-19 leaves man homeless for first time
He has never before been homeless in his 65 years. But COVID-19 changed that for John*.
John is an Australian who spends part of the year living in Thailand with his wife.
A former government employee, he arrived in the Hunter to visit his daughter and newborn grandchild just before the implications of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent.
John's wife is staying in a crowded home with family in Sydney, but he has remained in the Hunter - unable to stay with his daughter for fear of putting his baby grandchild at-risk and unable to return home to Thailand because the borders are closed.
Initially, he bought a $30 tent and slept in parks and reserves, dodging rangers - not knowing how long his first homeless stint would last.
But then he took his car to Lake Macquarie where he had access to bathroom amenities and a safe place to sleep as part of Macquarie Care's Our Backyard program.
"There's no way I'm going to put that child or my daughter in any kind of danger," he said.
"Within a matter of hours I became homeless."
John said he was frustrated with the Centrelink process - he has struggled to get through to anyone on the phone to try to get an advance on his disability pension payment for the few hundred dollars he needs for the bond for a rental property.
"Being on the disability pension I don't have $140 a night for a hotel," he said.
"I spent my whole fortnightly pension in five days."
Our backyard can be reached on 0402 155 586 or online at www.ourbackyard.info.
* Not his real name.
In the news this week:
- Toohey's News, The Podcast Episode 04: Newcastle Knights coach Adam O'Brien
- Appeal over serious Lake Macquarie crash that left two in critical condition
- Mobile phone detection camera spotted at Broadmeadow
- Month-long operation to remove containers lost from the YM Efficiency off Hunter coast to begin this weekend