On a freezing night outside a suburban mall, hundreds of people gathered in the hope of finding basics like produce, bread and ready meals.
On a freezing night in Sydney’s southwestern suburb of Miller, the most popular spot in town is an outdoor plaza filled with the sounds of lively chatter and dozens of children running around, excited about chocolate.
Surrounded by otherwise empty streets and an inactive mall, 83 Woodward Crescent is lit by a portable spotlight and the orange and blue glow of the Aldi sign across from the community space.
Since 4:30 p.m., people have been queuing with empty carts, an hour and a half before the Community Cafe’s food and meal services.
In one night, the Community Cafe Outreach program will serve 300 meals and up to 200 people, not including children. Since December, the line has gone from a peak of just over 70 to an average of 210 people each night.
The past two months in particular have seen an influx of new faces, as the cost of groceries and gas soar.
‘First meal of the day’
Rebecca Deering, mother of one, had her first meal of the day at 7 p.m. It used to be a piece of meatloaf from dinner the night before.
The food she scavenges on Tuesday evenings is mostly for her four-year-old daughter’s lunch box.
“It’s not about increasing the grocery bill, it’s about what you get in your cart because you don’t have extra cash,” she told news.com. to.
“I only feed (my daughter) as she is.”
Currently on a single parent pension of $970 a fortnight, Ms Deering spends $400 a week on rent. What’s left goes towards bills, and the remaining amount is kept for basic foodstuffs like butter, milk and meat.
“I need a little so I don’t hurt, but I mostly feed the child. She constantly eats,” she says.
“Three meals a day? Not for me. My daughter eats, I don’t.
Rachel de Bruyn, a pregnant mother of six, has visited the Community Cafe since the initiative began. At the time, she was homeless and living in her car while her children lived with her ex-partner.
“Gracious or blessed” is how she describes the time a kind Airbnb owner offered her a home for free and then for a reduced rate of $100.
“It allowed me to be more stable and to find a job, which I did,” she says.
Working now, but on maternity leave, she admits she doesn’t know “how they could afford anything”.
Ms. de Bruyn says stocking up on household products like shampoo and conditioner, or washing powder can cost $150 on its own. With six young children, including two sets of twins, Ms. de Bruyn estimates her grocery bill easily tops out at $500 a week.
“It’s too difficult right now and you’re always looking for places that do good business, but sometimes the savings just aren’t enough.”
“The number of people was overwhelming”
Elsewhere in the line, Community Cafe Incorporated CEO and founder Kirsty Parkes alternates between grabbing stock from her van, serving food or talking to her regulars.
Ms. Parkes and her volunteers are well-known faces in the community. During Tuesday’s service, a woman dropped by to donate $200 in cash to help Ms. Parkes achieve her goal of securing physical and permanent premises.
The volunteers know the regulars by name and every effort is made to find the necessary goods for certain people, whether it is a few extra meals of chicken, a rice cooker, a refrigerator or coverage.
“We have the opportunity to talk to people, determine their needs and discover their stories,” says Ms. Parkes.
“For some people it’s really important that they tell you and share it because they want you to know why they’re here.”
But Ms Parkes says the influx of people over the past three months has been “mind-boggling” and “overwhelming”.
She observed that the rising cost of living, from soaring gas prices to high grocery prices, has affected everyone, even those living in affluent suburbs.
Ms Parkes is also running a second food awareness program from her home in Hoxton Park, where attendance is also growing.
“People are struggling everywhere, even in areas that seem more affluent,” she says, referring to her own suburb of Hoxton Park.
“They may not mention it, or they may not access a service due to barriers such as access or pride, but we try to remove all of those barriers.”
“Take what you need, no questions asked”
Ms Parkes’ philosophy for Community Cafe remains the same as when she began operation in July 2021. At the time, controversial suburban-based lockdowns gripped the Liverpool local government area of Sydney, which meant that people could not walk more than 5 km to access other outreach activities. programs. Some that charged fees for their services have also raised their prices to meet demand.
However, Community Cafe’s focus has always been a “no questions asked” approach to community — not charity, she says.
“People can just freely access and take whatever they need and we don’t pass judgment on anyone.”
His vision for the project was also informed by his own experiences about seven years ago, when his own family was nearly homeless.
At the time, she and her husband unexpectedly welcomed twins, which saw her family grow from three to five “overnight”. At the cost of childcare, this meant that their family depended on her husband’s income alone, which barely covered their expenses.
“It was overwhelming and we struggled. There were many days and nights my husband and I just didn’t eat,” she says.
But her family has been offered a lifeline through a free food program offered by a community group in Bankstown. Desperate, Ms Parkes recalls borrowing money for the 20-minute drive from Bankstown to Miller – where she was living at the time.
“I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe it was free. I was like, ‘It’s going to be okay,'” she says.
“I said to my husband, ‘At some point we’ll be in a position where I can give back’.”
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