By ERWIN CHLANDA
Falling on hard times in Alice Springs these days isn’t exclusive to the usual suspects: a pregnancy or an accident can turn a two-income family into a single income one, and the town’s exorbitant rents can tip that family into crisis.
“The poor can’t buy a house here.
“It doesn’t take much for repayments becoming too hard, or heating and power bills,” says Captain Michael Johnson who with his wife Elizabeth, also a captain in the Salvation Army, heads up that stalwart aid organisation in The Centre.
They’re gearing up for their annual doorknock on May 19 and 20, and are still looking for volunteers (call them on 8951 0200).
The Salvos in Alice will be spending more than $1m this year, as usual “way more” than the doorknock yields, says Capt Johnson.
The local Salvos run two men’s hostels which are “pretty well always full”.
The “transition” one has eight beds and its residents are taught independent living skills – such as how to cook, how to clean, budgeting – and they may be there for two years.
The 19 bed hostel accommodates a range of men who are down on their luck: “It could be a marriage break-down, kicked out of their home, or they have drug or alcohol issues.
“They are people who have little or nothing in the way of resources.”
About 35% of them are Aboriginal (Aborigines make up about 20% of the town’s population) but there are no quotas.
“We’re open to all people,” says Capt Johnson. “If you fit the criteria and we have a bed, you come in.”
The community support services, the Salvos’ welfare arm, help people on a casual basis with such things as food, power and utility bills, accommodation, travel.
“Or they just come in and talk,” says Capt Johnson, “look and cook, encouraged to adopt positive lifestyles, direction, focus.”
The service provides one on one counselling and case management.
There are 2300 such “episodes” a year, but an episode can represent a household of eight people, so the number assisted is very considerable.
Some people come more than once but are limited to four visits a year for resource assistance, such as assisting with bills.
“They can come for a chat any time, of course.”
There is an Aboriginal support program which has six showers (“anybody can use them”), a toilet, washing machines, clotheslines.
People can swap their dirty clothes for clean ones, free of charge.
There’s food for free, collected from shops and restaurants the night before.
“There is lots of bread, seven gar bags full. It will all be gone by 11am,” says Capt Johnson.
“We may get 30 people per morning or none.
“It depends a lot on people coming in from outlying communities.
“We get fewer in the colder weather.”
Are some people getting free food so they can spend money on grog?
“I don’t ask people what they spend their money on,” says Capt Johnson.
The Salvos in Alice have 12 full time staff, 10 part time, three officers and 12 volunteers.
The Thrift Shop, now re-located to the brightly painted store next to the Woolworths service station in Wills Terrace, plays a multiple role.
It generates income, selling donated items ranging from clothes to furniture, electrical goods and bric-a-brac.
People in need can get vouchers to obtain goods for free.
Items are also distributed to four bush communities, depending on supply and demand in Alice Springs.
Meanwhile the national Salvation Army is saying: “Clearly this year it’s tougher than ever and our clients are hurting very badly.
“Huge numbers of people are coming to the Salvos seeking help.
“Latest figures show a million people need our help every year and about two million Australians now live in poverty including 12% of Australian children.”
Photo: Captains Michael and Elizabeth Johnson in the Salvos’ Thrift Shop.