THE secret glue holding shattered lives together in the hope they’ll hang together long enough to heal – travelling with one of the men from St Vincent de Paul Society’s Kenmore conference as he attempts to bring hope to the desperate and broken in the community, the description comes readily to mind.
The people we meet are well educated and have been successful for much of their lives. Now they’ve hit hard times. The Vinnies member, who wishes to remain anonymous, calls them the “new poor” who’ve become part of “a new stream of despair”.
“The present economic environment is a great worry, because we are meeting cases where the future has suddenly come to a dead end,” he said.
And lest any of us get too complacent, he adds: “For any of us, we just need a few things to go wrong, and we also will be these new poor.”
Over the next couple of hours, I meet people who illustrate his point.
There’s Aileen, a 60-year-old woman who’s somehow got to keep paying off an $82,000 home mortgage despite losing a full-time job and now in contract work which runs out on November 22.
We also visit an engineer, recruited from overseas having 28 years’ experience in coal mining, now out of work and needing substantial retraining.
I’ll discover he has a mortgage of $400 a fortnight, with a wife and a son attending university to support.
Understandably he’s severely depressed.
Then there’s Clare, a mother of two young children whose life has become a litany of disasters from having her home in North Queensland destroyed by Cyclone Larry to having her husband walk out on the marriage not long after they moved to Brisbane.
Now she’s struggling with health problems which leave her unable to work and keep up with living costs including rent and electricity bills of about $750 a fortnight before things like education, clothing and food are even considered.
The three people visited all agree the help from Vinnies is “a godsend”.
Later, longtime Kenmore Vinnies conference member Jim Devereaux will clarify the special relationship between Catholic parishioners and the charity.
“Vinnies never give handouts,” he said.
“Parishioners give us money, thanking God for their good fortune. They want to share with those who have not been so lucky.”
By way of example, he tells of one generous response to an item in the local parish bulletin.
“The item told of a lady fleeing Sydney to Brisbane because of a husband’s marital abuse and child pornography issues,” he said.
“One parishioner donated $1500 as a helping hand.”
Now, as I head out for a series of home visits with another Vinnies member, I’m about to see how other such generous donations are spent.
Aileen has lived the past seven years in a modern, well-kept house in an unremarkable stretch of suburbia in the Kenmore region.
As she tells her story, it becomes clear she’s been a prudent money manager paying $299,000 deposit on the $390,000 home.
This was despite having to bring up four children on her own after her husband “left for greener pastures” while she was expecting the fourth child.
Aileen was well ahead then her “maternal instinct” led her to lend $80,000 to a son in difficulty. He has since repaid the amount although, as she said, “without interest”.
She’d spent a lot of her younger working life in lower-paid community welfare roles.
For the past 12 years, she’s been in the insurance industry, the last two as a recoveries officer.
A decision to change into a better-paid full-time permanent role with another insurance company, one of the largest in Queensland proved disastrous.
“The first week I started there was my 60th birthday,” Aileen said.
“My team leader, who was 32 years of age, had made a comment on the day I brought in a cake to the team to celebrate my birthday … she looked at me and said: ‘Oh. I didn’t know you were that old’.
“I didn’t take much notice at the time but her attitude towards me changed and there were lots of different remarks she was making.
“On the ninth week of my probation she took me into her office and said that my role was going to finish. I asked why and she said she didn’t have to give me a reason.
“That was the end of my so-called full-time permanent role and I now have a casual job which runs out on November 22.”
Typically for someone who had managed so well all her life, Aileen was reluctant to seek any support from charity as her situation worsened.
“I was very proud … I left it as long as I could,” she says with a slight laugh.
“I’d gone to the doctor because I was feeling a little bit down and he referred me to a dietician who said you’ll have to look at a special diet. I said I didn’t have any money.
“Just after the discussion, she realised I wasn’t getting any money except Centrelink and the $250 a week wasn’t even paying my mortgage which is $480 a week.
“Then there are bills like electricity and phone and insurances so the dietician then put me in contact with St Vincent de Paul … otherwise I wouldn’t have known what to do.
“It’s been very embarrassing to have to accept this help.”
Aileen has been looking for work but, given her 60 years and the ongoing job cuts in the State Public Service, has severe doubts about success.
“Talking to my peers in my social circles they’re very fearful, even younger people are too fearful to purchase homes, too fearful to take other higher jobs if they’re offered,” she said.
“I know a 34-year-old civil engineer who was offered more money than his current work but was too fearful to take it, given he would have to go through a probationary period.”
So what has the support from Vinnies meant to Aileen?
“They’ve been a godsend … an absolute godsend,” she said. “Over four weeks I would not have had any food in the pantry except for condiments and that included things like bread and milk and eggs … things that people take for granted.”
The others we visit – the struggling mother of two and the suddenly unemployed engineer – all have similar sentiments.
Mr Devereaux calls such people the “invisible victims of the current system”.
“I suspect few in the community know of the delicate situation in which people are finding themselves,” he said.
“These are responsible people who have planned their careers and could have reasonably expected to be safe.
“As always Vinnies will be there to walk alongside these and others in desperate need.
“One thing we can use as conference members is more prayer support because after listening to people in these situations, you just want to come home and weep.”