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Melbourne mother forced into poverty after son was diagnosed with severe autism

Single mother Deborah Frith with her four-year-old son Jacob. Photo: Jason SouthDeborah Frith stood in line with her toddler at the church-run food relief centre, waiting to collect the much-needed supplies she couldn’t afford: nappies, canned vegetables, milk.

The single mother had just moved back to Melbourne from interstate after her three-year-old son, Jacob, was diagnosed with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder.

As his full-time carer Ms Frith had already given up her career as a kinesiologist and deferred the master’s in psychology she planned on studying. Then came the costs of her son’s therapy and medicine.

“To not be able to feed your child … it’s heart-wrenching,” she said.

Eights months since they arrived in Melbourne, Ms Frith and her son still live in emergency accommodation – a one-bedroom apartment in South Yarra. The government welfare payments they survive on total about $650 a week, making the private rental market out of reach.

“We haven’t had a home since [we moved],” she said. “We’re tier one priority but we still can’t be housed and it’s looking like it could take years.”

New research by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia has found up to 1.5 million Australians – between 4 and 6 per cent of the population – live in poverty and have “little to no hope” of improving their situation.

People who drop out of school, those aged over 65 or with long-term health problems or a disability, people living in a jobless household and Indigenous Australians are at higher risk.

Ms Frith, who grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, said she never expected to find herself in cramped public housing and struggling to afford to buy meat and fresh vegetables.

She struggles to find enough money to run her car, which she needs to take Jacob to up to nine specialist appointments a week, including a pediatrician, speech therapist and occupational therapist.

“I feel like I’m living in a depression,” she said. “After bills are paid we have about $20 to $30 a day for food, medicine, petrol. Coming up towards our payment days we’re scraping by to get the basics – that’s the struggle. There’s not a day where I don’t worry how we’re going to survive. And the only reason we’re in this situation is because a few things stacked up and I found myself here.”

Ms Frith said many other people she had met in recent months were also struggling to pay for food, accommodation and transport.

“People who wouldn’t have been in this situation in the past are facing poverty,” she said.  ”The cost of living has gone up so much and rental prices just aren’t viable. My resilience is running bare … this has really pushed me to my absolute limit. I feel frustrated and really let down by the system.”

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