It is Tuesday night in Ipswich and across town lines of hungry people are forming outside boarding houses, hostels and care centres. Everyone is waiting for a bright yellow van to roll around the corner.
For some, tonight’s meal will be their first for that day. For others, the first in a few.
Helping Hands volunteers scramble every week to pull together grocery packs and collect food donations to make sandwiches and soup for some of the region’s most vulnerable.
But, as the cost of food rises, that’s becoming more difficult to do.
“We don’t have many pantry packs this week folks,” one of the volunteers yells to a crowd of 20 people, some of whom started to line up half an hour before the van arrived to get the first pick of what was on offer.
“So, if you don’t need one tonight, we ask that you don’t take one. But, of course, if you do need one, feel free to take it,” he said.
Kyle Dixon has relied on the service for nearly two years.
He’s found refuge at an Ipswich boarding house. While it’s not perfect, for $170 a week he has a bed and a roof over his head.
While the weekly food van service has been a budget lifesaver, he said he’s been going hungry a lot more recently than ever before.
“I have a bit less money, considering my bills and the expenses I need to do day-to-day life,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s quite hard to get food in.
“With the soup and the sandwiches as well [from the van], it’s absolutely amazing. That’s a good dinner if you hadn’t had anything to eat already.”
Anthony Burke, who volunteers for helping hands, has seen the effects of the rising cost of living firsthand.
Mr Burke said people seem hungrier and more desperate.
“In the last year [there’s] been a lot more demand,” he said.
“Some people are having to choose between canned food and toothpaste — in those situations, they’ll always choose the food.”
Sean Maskiel has also relied on the food van for two years.
He lives in another boarding house in Ipswich, and said he’s noticed more people are using the service now.
“There’s quite a few homeless people that are appearing out of nowhere that just need that extra hand,” he said.
Rental crisis filling boarding houses
Gene Waterman manages two boarding houses in Ipswich.
Just a few weeks ago, there were up to 15 people on a waiting list for a room.
“[It is] crazy. From five years ago to now, it’s a completely different beast,” he said, “10 years ago, there were always around 10 rooms available. Now I’m always full.
“There is literally nothing out there. You don’t have a choice where you live. You just go anywhere you can get a place.”
Data from the Real Estate Institute of Queensland shows the average cost to rent a three-bedroom property in Goodna, Springfield, Bellbird Park and Camira in 2019 was $350 per week.
Now it’s $420.
In the Rosewood area, the price hike is even steeper, going from $295 per week to $440 per week in just three years.
And, while rental costs balloon, so has the number of people sitting below the poverty line.
The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) now defines the poverty line as any single adult earning less than $457 per week or a couple with two children earning less than $960 per week.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 more than 54,000 people in the Ipswich local government area were earning less than $499 per week.
According to the 2021 census, that number has grown to more than 55,000.
Problem starts with low income
ACOSS chief executive Edwina MacDonald has a handle on the issue.
“We know that, of the people we’re spoken to, 50 per cent of them are skipping meals and they’re reducing how much they’re eating,” Ms MacDonald said.
“We know that they’re cutting back or not using their car at all.”
Ms MacDonald said raising incomes was the key to turning the situation around.
“If we don’t do something to address the cost for people who are on the lowest incomes, demand is certainly going to go up,” she said.
“It’s really obvious that, with the cost-of-living problem, we need to be looking at incomes.”
“If we just look at individual costs, it’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole — the different costs pop up and we’re just trying to address them one-by-one.
“Really, the structural problem is about incomes.”