The only specialist service visiting lonely older LGBTI Australians in the state of Victoria is battling to survive after federal funding cuts announced on the eve of Christmas.
In late December, the federal government told LGBTI support service Switchboard that it would lose two-thirds of its funding under the Community Visitors Scheme (CVS). The CVS aims to reduce loneliness among those in residential or community-based aged care by funding visits from volunteers.
They are often the only visits that clients of the programme receive.
The way the CVS funding was doled out to community groups was radically changed late last year, leading to angst, confusion, and, in some cases, fears of support gaps.
Switchboard is the only peer-based service in Victoria supporting older LGTBI Australians, a cohort deemed as a priority in the federal government’s own aged care diversity framework, which was released by the aged care minister, Ken Wyatt, in 2017.
Switchboard’s chief executive, Joe Ball, said the service was told three weeks before Christmas that its funding would be cut, throwing the future of staff and clients into doubt.
“That was also two days before our end-of-year party, which was for the recipients of the service,” Ball said. “So two days after I found out that we had lost our money … I had to look at them and think ‘oh God, where are you going to be in six months?’”
Ball is now trying to fundraise the A$310,000 (US$221,920) required to maintain the service. If Switchboard fails to raise the money, its clients will likely be left on their own.
“I strongly believe we would be transitioning them to nowhere, that’s what I believe,” Ball said. “Every person who is in our service was not in a previous community visitor scheme. They haven’t come from mainstream to us, they’ve come from social isolation to us.
“They come to us because there’s a very important part of their life – their sexuality and gender identity – that they want acknowledged and they want to express it. That’s why they want a visitor. And because they trust us. Really importantly, they trust us to understand their experiences.”
The level of overall funding for CVS has not been reduced. But for the first time since the programme began in 1992, the government ran a competitive tender process to award money to community groups, aiming to refresh the programme and reward better-performing providers.
Ball said Switchboard treated the tender process with utmost seriousness and had initially been confident of success, given the organisation had previously been used as an example of best practice by the government.
Ball said the group understood the need for change but that the new funding mechanism had now stripped money from the only group providing a specialised service to what the federal government had previously identified as a priority group.
The way the changes were implemented is currently under review by the government. Wyatt asked his department to conduct the review after providers raised concerns late last year.
He said last month that the federal government was committed to tackling loneliness and isolation, and funding for the CVS had actually increased under the Coalition.
Wyatt said that there had been no reduction in funding to LGBTI-focused services, despite Switchboard losing its money. He said there were other groups in Victoria that supported LGBTI needs.
“While Switchboard has not been allocated the amount of funding it applied for there has been no reduction in funding for CVS services targeting people from the LGBTI community,” Wyatt said. “In Victoria 10 organisations which identified LGBTIQ as a special needs groups to receive CVS services have received offers of funding.”
Labor’s shadow ageing minister, Julie Collins, described the decision to cut funding to Switchboard as “incredibly disappointing”.
“We know that many older LGBTIQ Australians are already vulnerable, which makes the decision to cut funding to Switchboard particularly cruel,” Collins said.
“Switchboard does fantastic work connecting LGBTIQ volunteers with LGBTIQ older Australians in residential aged care to make a positive difference and help address the growing issue of loneliness in our community.”
Wyatt was contacted for a response.