Wimmera Uniting Care struggles to cope with financial counselling service demand

Financial victims are overwhelming Wimmera Uniting Care's counselling service. Picture: FILE PIC
Financial victims are overwhelming Wimmera Uniting Care's counselling service. Picture: FILE PIC

WIMMERA Uniting Care is struggling to cope with demand for its financial counselling service.

Community mental health and financial services manager Leigh Cooksley said new referrals were a daily occurrence.

“Unfortunately, people in financial hardship have to go on a waiting list,” he said.

“The average wait is two to six weeks, but at times has blown out to 12 weeks or more.”

Funding cuts have reduced the service to a sole financial counsellor.

Before March, Wimmera Uniting Care was funded for two additional part-time positions.

Mr Cooksley said the reduced staffing was taking its toll.

“We don’t have the capacity to provide outreach services any more,” he said.

“Clients need to come to our Horsham office.

“We are trying to shield our financial counsellor as much as we can from what is affecting her program.”

Other staff had pitched in wherever possible to help manage the waiting list, which Mr Cooksley said had consisted of more than 50 people at times. 

But, unless the worker was a qualified financial counsellor, he said they could not resolve complex financial predicaments.

“We’re better off giving a quality service to a smaller number of people, in this instance,” Mr Cooksley said.

“We would love not to have a waiting list.

“For some people, the situation gets worse before we get around to seeing them.

“It can all snowball, and it’s so unfair.”

He said the severity of clients’ financial situations was worsening.

“We have assisted more than 50 people to work through the bankruptcy process in the past 12 months, and the demand has increased in the past four months,” he said.

“This is always a last resort, but we are assisting more and more people through this every year.

“We have prevented more bankruptcies than we have assisted people in filing for, but all of these things affect the community.”

With a tough Federal Budget thrown into the mix, Mr Cooksley expected demand for community financial services to increase.

Wimmera Uniting Care is exploring all avenues to hire additional financial counsellors.

Northern Grampians Shire Council is drafting a letter of support for the service.

Meanwhile, Mr Cooksley said Wimmera Uniting Care hoped to secure money from the Department of Social Services to improve people’s financial literacy.

“We need to be educating people about how to read their bills and budget, and the importance of calling a power company to make a payment plan if they know they can’t afford to pay their bill,” he said.

“If we can do those things, people are going to be so much better off.

“It’s just a vicious cycle that people get trapped in.”

Grant applications for the financial literacy program close on July 23.