Swamped Cairns charities send an SOS
CAIRNS charities bracing for a busy Christmas period have put out a final call for community help as demand for emergency relief in the region soars.
Many families in the Far North will be able to give their children presents and enjoy a hot meal on Christmas Day because of the generosity of the community.
But the number of people in need continues to grow, fuelled by what the head of a leading welfare agency describes as a housing crisis.
Last month 519 people sought support from Anglicare Cairns' Homeless Hub a 30 per cent jump from the same time last year.
Chief executive Ian Roberts said the number of people needing help in the months leading up to Christmas had risen markedly.
"There's a desperate need for accommodation and we have a serious lack of availability," he said.
With donors tightening their belts, welfare agencies are also struggling to attract funding from traditional sources.
"We get a limited amount of support because it's hard for people in these difficult economic times," Mr Roberts said.
"What we ask people to provide us with is time, energy and enthusiasm instead."
He said the number of homeless people in the Far North was difficult to calculate, because some families couch-surfed with friends and relatives, or even slept in their cars while waiting for more permanent accommodation.
The Salvation Army will today send out 171 food and toy hampers to people in need, while also handing out 1855 toys to children through other agencies.
Salvation Army spokesman Lt Darren Kingston said there was a growing trend of middle- class families needing help as they struggled with rising utility bills.
The non-profit organisation is also looking for donations to help it hold a Christmas lunch for about 300 homeless people.
Street Level Youth Care founder Harald Falge, who helps feed disadvantaged teens and children in Cairns, has also noticed a rise in numbers.
"It's a little bit busier for this time of year, there seems to be a lot of younger people roaming the street instead of being home," he said.
"It can be difficult to cater for. Sometimes we get 10 people and other nights we'll get 70."
Matt Schmitt, who will open El Mundo Tapas Bar on Christmas Day to feed about 120 people, said he had been inundated with calls of support and was now having to turn volunteers away.
Rosie's Friends on the Street co-ordinator Melissa Milton is expecting about 100 people to attend a free dinner at Munro Martin Park on Christmas Eve.
"People who come are generally experiencing isolation and a lack of a support network around them," she said.
"Christmas is a special time so we want people to know we're out there."
How you can help
*Help hand out food for Anglicare Cairns or volunteer in other ways by calling 4041 5454.
*Put a present under a tree, or donate to the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal before Christmas Eve.
*Donate non-perishable food at collection bins outside Coles supermarkets.
*Volunteer to serve food from Street Level Youth Care vans or help out at Harald's House by calling 0408 770 899.
*Donate food for a Salvation Army Christmas lunch at its men and women's shelter by calling 4031 4432.
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Helping hand: Salvation Army volunteer Carol Gratton-Wilson adds the finishing touches to Christmas hampers. Pictures: TOM LEE