Friday, 23 December 2011

Social service hotline expects rise in calls due to economic slowdown

By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2011

A hotline which refers needy people to social service agencies is bracing itself for a spike in the number of calls it may receive, due to the economic slowdown.



The 24-hour hotline was set up in 2008 under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. It helps those who are seeking social services, jobs, shelter and financial aid but do not know where to turn to.

'We do see a co-relation between the number of calls received and the economic situation. With the current economic uncertainty, ComCare Call is extremely important as it is timely for people to know where to get help speedily,' said Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob during a briefing at the call centre in Clemenceau Avenue on Thursday.

She noted that the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 saw a spike of 13 per cent in the number of calls.

The hotline's operators are trained to identify the type of help needed and refer callers to the organisations that can help them, such as Community Development Councils and Family Service Centres.

ComCare Call also shares information with other agencies, such as the Community Development Councils.

This way, in certain cases, callers will not have to repeat the information they gave the operators when they are referred to another agency.

The feedback loop also allows agencies to make an update on the status of the cases. For example, they can leave a note to indicate which social worker is handling a particular case.

As of last month, ComCare Call had received a total of 103,600 calls since its inception.

This year, it had received 26,900 calls so far, up from the 23,083 calls received last year.

An average of 2,500 calls are received each month, and the cases are referred to and picked up by the Community Development Councils and Family Service Centres within a day.

The nature of the calls received has changed since 2008. More Singaporeans are now calling to seek help for social services such as counselling rather than financial aid.

In all, 18 per cent of the calls received between January and November this year were from people seeking social services, up from 7 per cent in 2008.

However, those asking for some form of financial aid dropped from 20 per cent in 2008 to 12 per cent this year.

The rest of the calls were for those seeking help with jobs or housing.

The changes in the types of calls received could be due to two main reasons, said Madam Halimah.

'The spike in calls for social services shows that the challenges facing families have become more complex. They do not just need financial assistance but also advice on issues like marriage, children and elderly care,' she said.

'The spike could also be due to the introduction of new schemes like the Centre-based Financial Assistance Scheme for Childcare and the Kindergarten Financial Assistance Scheme, where the income ceiling was raised so more people qualify for it and thus are calling to get more information and referrals.'




Government to broaden ComCare Enterprise Fund
By Monica Kotwani, Channel NewsAsia, 9 Dec 2011

Promising social enterprises with proven models and track record which want to expand to help more needy Singaporeans will get more help from the government.

From January 2012, the government will broaden the scope of its ComCare Enterprise Fund (CEF), which currently provides start-up funds to new social enterprises to provide training and employment for needy Singaporeans.

Since 2003, when the CEF was started, about S$10 million has been committed to support about 80 social enterprises, benefiting more than 1,600 Singaporeans.

Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Madam Halimah Yacob, said: "We have received feedback from existing social enterprises that are doing well, that they need additional funding to grow their businesses or to expand into new areas.

"With their expanded operations, they could help even more disadvantaged Singaporeans.

"We hope that such investments in promising existing social enterprises will also propel them to a level that opens up more financing access from the commercial market, impact investors and venture philanthropy funds."

Madam Halimah announced this on Friday at a flagship conference on social enterprise development organised by the Social Enterprise Development Centre.

From January 2012, the government will also introduce a new tier of CEF funding for social entrepreneurial projects by youths.

The S$3 million seed-funding programme is targeting more than 70 schools over three years and 25 start-up projects among institutions of higher learning.

Madam Halimah said the funding is in line with a study of Singapore youths in 2009, which showed that more youths are interested in contributing to the community.



Family service centres gear up for downturn victims
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2011

FAMILY service centres (FSCs) are taking early action to ensure they can cope with an expected rise in requests for assistance in a downturn.

Measures, including having emergency funds to help walk-in clients handle the initial rough patches and hiring more staff, are being worked out.

There are 38 FSCs run by voluntary welfare organisations in Singapore.

Five out of 10 centres The Straits Times spoke to last week say they have already noted a 5 per cent to 20 per cent increase in the number of financial assistance cases in the latter half of this year.

They expect the numbers to grow next year, possibly hitting the 40 per cent to 50 per cent spike they saw during the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

'Some of our clients, especially those on casual work arrangements like part-time or those on contract, are already feeling the heat. They have been prepared by their bosses that their contracts will not be renewed next year,' said Mr Vincent Ng, director of social services at Ang Mo Kio FSCs.

Mrs Florence Lim, director of Covenant FSC, said: 'We have clients saying they are no longer required to work overtime.'

This has had an impact on dependents.

Rotary FSC in Clementi has had 5 per cent more cases of low-income elderly - who live alone in rental flats - seeking help. 'It is possible that their children's income sources are affected and they can no longer afford to give their parents as much pocket money,' said its counsellor Hindran Maniam.

On Jan 11, the National Council of Social Service will conduct a full-day session for all FSCs to provide updates on the economic climate and discuss learning points from the previous downturn.

These moves come amid a 150 per cent increase in calls received by a ComCare hotline over the past three years, with 4,616 calls last year.

The hotline is an initiative by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and refers needy people to social service agencies. Three to five call operators will be added to its current 16. The FSCs said they have learnt lessons from previous downturns, such as the importance of having an emergency interim financial-aid fund.

'We realised that we cannot rely solely on donations as these may fall quite a bit during bad times. So during the good years, we put aside about 5 per cent to 10 per cent of our operational surplus,' said Mr Ng of the Ang Mo Kio FSCs.

The funds are used to sustain operations and provide immediate aid to the needy. This is crucial as applications for such help to, say, community development councils, can take about two weeks to process, said Mr Samuel Ng, chief executive of Marine Parade FSC. 'They come to you with their water and gas supply turned off; these people need immediate cash to tide them through that two-week period,' he added.

@27 FSC in Telok Blangah linked up with Catholic Welfare Services to set up such an emergency fund in November. One-time amounts, not more than $50, are offered to the needy for their food and transport needs.

Scaling up manpower is also part of the strategy.

Covenant FSC was so overwhelmed with the number of cases in the last financial crisis that it hired another social worker in the midst of the recession.

This time, it has hired a social work associate who will become a full-fledged social worker by July next year to cope with the expected influx. Similarly, Rotary FSC is adding about three staff members to its team of seven.

Some FSCs are tapping on help at the grassroots level. 'Due to manpower limitations, if we are unable to make home visits as frequently as we would like, the grassroots volunteers will partner us in making those visits,' said Mrs Rachel Lee, assistant director of Fei Yue FSCs.

The FSCs said they were now also better prepared to reach out to a group that they do not usually handle - PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians).

'From past experience, the key group causing the spike in the numbers of those who come to seek help in a recession may be the PMETs,' said Mrs Sara Tan, director of Hougang Sheng Hong FSC.

Sensitivity is paramount in dealing with this group of people as they may be embarrassed to ask for help and may struggle with matters that go beyond the need for financial aid.

For example, self-esteem issues often accompany job losses.

While they prepare themselves for the challenge ahead, the FSCs are also urging donors to pitch in early so that funds can be disbursed in a timely manner.

'During the previous downturn, by the time the money came to us, the recession was over. We need to start raising funds now,' said Mrs Lim of Covenant FSC.

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