As a breadwinner, imagine losing the part-time job that supported your family. Not knowing when you will eat next or where you and your children will sleep tomorrow. With many unable to access Government assistance, this was the situation many asylum seekers found themselves in the early months of 2020, exacerbating already unstable accommodation often with children in tow.
In its 27 years of operation, the Asylum Seeker Centre (ASC) had never seen such an immediate demand for support as they did during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We set up hotlines on the weekend of 20 March (when the lockdown commenced), and calls for assistance started pouring in straight away,” says ASC CEO Frances Rush. “The three key immediate needs were food, housing and mental health support. While our services and programs offer a wide range of support, we had to focus on helping people meet their most basic needs.”
In April 2020, Macquarie Group (Macquarie) announced a $A20m donation fund to support select non-profit organisations in their efforts to combat the pandemic and its effects. The ASC received a $A130,000 grant as part of this initiative.
Established in 1993 to provide a place of welcome, practical advice and support, the ASC has grown significantly over the years. Today, the organisation provides a range of support services to more than 5,000 people. Just over 30 staff and more than 450 volunteers work with the organisation – from stocking a , offering a health clinic with two doctor, employment and accommodation support, and English language training.
Macquarie Group Foundation (the Foundation) has been a proud supporter of the ASC since 2013.
“What started as a $A5,000 donation quickly turned into a deep relationship with many layers,” says Rush. “Macquarie Bank’s Managing Director and CEO Mary Reemst is on our Board of Directors and together Macquarie staff and the Foundation have donated more than $A300,000 in that time.
Rush says “The Foundation showed an enormous level of trust in us by allowing us to allocate the COVID grant as we saw fit. Which meant we could use it to help people where they need it most.”.
Pooling grants from a couple of different sources like Macquarie, the ASC was able to jump on an opportunity to secure accommodation for many of the people it supports.
“We were approached by a group with empty investment properties. They offered them to us at a heavily subsidised rate for six months. Using the funds, we were able to pay for six months’ rent for people in need. So they now have a temporary home – a safe place where they can focus on finding work to take care of themselves and their families,” Rush says. “It gives them hope.”
Many people were able to find jobs soon after they settled into their new accommodation and are now saving for a bond to rent their own homes.
During the pandemic the ASC also realised there was a real need for people to stay digitally connected – with important support services and with their friends and family.
“We put a call out for laptops and computers and Macquarie staff reacted instantly. They donated approximately 125 laptops which were refurbished by volunteers at the ASC. Many people are now able to keep those vital links with family and friends going, which aids their wellbeing.”
Regular giving is also vital for the ASC, as it is fully-funded by grants and philanthropy.
“Macquarie is our number one workplace giver – its staff regularly donate a portion of their salary to support our services. It’s people like Macquarie’s staff who enable us to keep going.”
Macquarie’s support has allowed the ASC to help more than 200 asylum seekers get to work and appointments with Opal card top-ups, stay connected through laptops and phones, find work and feel safe knowing they have a place to call home. And most importantly it has given people seeking asylum a place to call home - practical support to make life easier.
The pandemic has also shifted people’s needs and the way they access support significantly, according to Rush.
“We used to have people drop in to top up their pantry with supplies from our food bank. Now we deliver a fortnight’s worth of food to over 1,200 people regularly,” she says.
Helping people secure accommodation is also a priority, as is developing an accessible and supportive community: “We want to take the sense of home our Newtown hub provided to more communities and locations so more people can access services easier.”
So rather than having one central location, the ASC is working towards becoming embedded within different geographic areas, thus providing a connection to local services and opportunities. It will continue to partners, volunteers and specialist organisations to provide vital services.
The outpouring of support from individuals, the community and organisations like Macquarie has been incredible throughout the pandemic, Rush says.
“We will never truly fill the need, but together we can make a real impact.”