• Tony Bosworth

Thousands of Hawkesbury residents on struggle street and doing it tough as Christmas looms

With the Covid pandemic capping a horror year of fires and floods, thousands more people have been queuing at Hawkesbury’s Helping Hands food charity every week, with as many as 2000 served food every seven days.

The South Windsor-based organisation which is this year’s recipient of the Mayor’s Christmas Appeal, has been going for nine years since tireless organiser Linda Strickland’s then eight-year-old daughter wondered why a man was looking in a bin for food.

Linda Strickland (left) and volunteers at Hawkesbury's Helping Hands

“This year we have Covid, and our postcode is in the top 10 worst affected financially,” said Ms Strickland. “There is work to be done.”

They are also the only food charity open over the Christmas period, a time when need is heightened but most charities close their doors so staff can have a holiday.

At HHH, volunteers are hard at work preparing for the Christmas rush as many people find themselves alone and unable to properly afford to feed themselves.

Before Covid reared its head, HHH were serving around 400 people a week, including providing emergency school lunches and breakfasts at several local schools.

Volunteers hard at work preparing for the rush

“We are now assisting over 2000 people weekly with food relief through our many programmes and sharing our bounty with other charities,” said Ms Strickland.

“With many organisations closing over the Christmas period, some for up to a month, we start to stockpile food this time every year, so no-one goes hungry on our watch during that time.

“Last year we also helped those affected by the devastating bushfires that ripped though not only our community but others, as well as volunteers from many emergency services because those volunteers couldn't afford to put food on their families tables whilst they were out protecting us, because we had food and we were open.”

During the bushfire emergency, sparked a year ago, HHH volunteers delivered meals to the families of emergency workers who couldn’t be at their normal jobs and many had next to no income during the worst bushfires in living memory.

“Just before last Christmas we took food up to Colo Heights and Bilpin and took Christmas presents for people up there too. Christmas Day we had a free lunch for everybody. We had a call from the SES saying they had no food for their volunteers, so we gave them six and a half tonnes of ours, which obviously left us short but we always have the belief that if somebody needs it now they need it now, there’s no point holding on to it or having it sit there.

Volunteers are at the core of everything HHH does

And it’s not just unemployed people who are suffering in our community. Ms Strickland says many people who come to The Hive – as they call their warehouse headquarters – are what she calls working poor – people with jobs but not enough money to pay for necessities.

We all have difficult weeks,” says Linda. “We may have someone come in one day because it’s been a particularly difficult week for them. We may never see them again. We do have a lot of people come in, and it always makes me very sad, people who have never needed to reach out for help before who feel as if they have to justify being here. We often get, ‘oh, I’ve never had to do this before. Over 30 years I’ve never had to ask for help’. We don’t need justification but for them to ask for help is often really tough and it brings a tear to my eye.”

And because of the pandemic, international students – some of whom travel from other local government areas to the Hive – are also regulars too now.

“They can’t get back home, they have no income and not much money,” says Linda. “They come from all over the world.

“We have a lot of cancer people who come down here to eat too, people out of work, people with workplace injuries, people with mental illness, people with disabilities. We have a huge umbrella because it’s all about putting food on the table. With the money they can save here on food they can make their electricity bill, they won’t get behind. What we do here is not just help the homeless, but we also stop homelessness. And people don’t look at it like that. What do I do, they ask - my kids go hungry or do I pay the rent? For some people it’s about just keeping the lights on, they have to make these tough decisions but if we can help you with food you’ll be able to pay that bill.”

So this year, as pressure builds on pressure, the HHH crew have been working overtime for what they know is going to be a very difficult time for so many in the community.

“Especially with more job losses, more people becoming homeless and it’s only going to get worse we fear, with benefits being cut on December 31st. We are in unchartered waters, but we promise to do the very best we can,” says Linda.

And so Linda and the team are putting out a plea for more space to store more food and other items to help people through the holiday period.

“What we need the most - and desperately right now - is even more space than we already have, just to use during this period. Like a warehouse just for a six-week period, to store stuff, sort stuff, accept stuff, so we can operate more efficiently and to the best of our abilities and capabilities.”

So if you happen to have a warehouse close to South Windsor which HHH could use for six or seven weeks, starting November 30, get in touch.

“Does anyone have any contacts with anyone? Is there a commercial real estate agent out there, that knows of a property that has been empty for a while?” asks Linda.

If you do have some answers to these questions, contact Linda through the Hawkesbury’s Helping Hands Facebook page as soon as you can.

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