Anger over Luncheon Club closure
SYDNEY: ACON’s decision to close the Luncheon Club’s larder service and cut back its weekly meals has provoked strong reactions among clients, volunteers and long-time members, with many expressing anger and disenchantment over ACON’s management of the long-running service.
But ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill moved to reassure the community, acknowledging that consultation could have been “more effective”, while also signalling increased engagement with clients in the shaping of the new program.
Late last Friday, ACON announced that from March 30, the Luncheon Club, otherwise known as the Wellness Program, would no longer provide a subsidised grocery service or additional meals apart from those provided as part of Positive Living Centre’s (PLC) social activities.
After March 30, there will only be two catered events each week.
Clients requiring access to the larder and extra meals will now have to access external meal and food assistance options based nearby, ACON said.
SX understands the announcement caused distress amongst clients on Friday, while more than 60 people turned up to ACON’s Elizabeth Street building Monday afternoon to voice their disappointment over the changes.
Carole Ann King, who founded the Luncheon Club in 1993, told SX she regretted ever allowing ACON the opportunity to take over its operations.
Had she known that Luncheon Club clients would eventually have to go to mainstream charity providers, she would never have relinquished control in 2008, even in the face of financial pressure and closure.
“I’m so sorry because I regret what I did,” King said.
“ACON cannot deal with human beings. Because it is such a big bureaucratic organisation they cannot deal with the reality of clients.”
Parkhill moved to counter such comments.
“I certainly don’t accept that we’re ignorant of – or non-responsive to – HIV-positive realities in 2012 or that we’re unfamiliar or scared of HIV-positive clients,” Parkhill said.
“I do accept that we can do better at community engagement. And we will”.
The changes come amid an organisational restructure which will see the Wellness Program switch divisions within ACON.
When ACON and the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation (BGF) took over the running of the Luncheon Club in mid-2008, it was done on the back of 12 months funding from NSW Health on the proviso that it transition from a ‘welfare model’ to a ‘health promotion model’, with a focus on linking clients via referral and case management to existing HIV and other health related services, Parkhill said.
BGF is no longer involved with any activities relating to the Luncheon Club.
This new model will see the Wellness Program move from ACON’s Client Services Division to the newly-formed HIV/Sexual Health Division.
The move to a single delivery model also reflects funding agreements following the amalgamation last year of former offsite services, including the Luncheon Club to ACON’s Elizabeth Street headquarters, Parkhill said.
He added ACON will work towards ensuring the new model which emerges after March 30 “aligns as far as possible with client, stakeholder, funder and strategic expectations and that can’t happen without client engagement”.
“So rather than these events being the end of something, it might be more useful to acknowledge a new beginning,” Parkhill said.
But King said engagement was the very thing missing from the running of the Luncheon Club.
“The biggest problem was not allowing volunteers to have a say in running the place,” King said.
“People who are sick still want to feel useful.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by former Luncheon Club vice-president Lance Day who said that, in its heyday, the Luncheon Club had close to 200 volunteers who would help with the running of the service and in raising funds.
Day quit mid-last year “in disgust” over management after 15 years of service.
“They’ve (ACON) taken over a number of little organisations but what they are doing for them who knows?” Day said.
Parkhill acknowledged that communication with clients, ensuring they had a clear understanding of the process which will see the emergence of a new model, could have been done more effectively.
“We need to do better in that respect,” Parkhill said.
“We’ll keep talking with our current clients at meal services and we also plan to run a number of community consultations around both the immediate transition completion issues and HIV-positive health promotion programming more generally."
But the cutback on services has prompted concerns over the health and wellbeing of clients forced to seek assistance from mainstream and religious organisations, many of which are already working to capacity.
Former ACON employee Natalie Talbot, who worked as a chef for the PLC meal services, said the changes will have a major impact on those who rely on the Luncheon and the larder.
“Already, the cost of living is going up,” she said. “People have been relying on this service for almost 20 years.”
Talbot is now unemployed having been made redundant by ACON on Friday.
“There is no accountability and ACON have definitely lost the focus of their clients,” she said.
“How can one say they are a client-based organisation when they no longer seem to prioritise their clients?”
King said “sending people to mainstream charities will not work”.
“They themselves are already overstretched and one wonders which clients will be sent to which charities. A large part of the Luncheon Club was the sense of community,” King said.
“ACON is the biggest non-government HIV organisation in Australia. Why aren’t they actually providing services to people with HIV rather than farming them out?”
Moreover, some mainstream and religious organisations, King suggested, may not be sensitive towards the needs of people living with HIV.
Parkhill acknowledged these concerns but said the response should be about integration not separation.
“Historically, mainstream service and client responses to perceptions of sexuality difference have resulted in members of our communities feeling pretty unsafe in some of these spaces,” Parkhill said.
“But our community and sector response to that issue in 2012 shouldn’t be to just duplicate existing funded service provision via a NSW AIDS program specific or GLBT specific service response.
“We think the most appropriate response in 2012 should be to require and ensure that those services are HIV and GLBT responsive, inclusive and welcoming.”
Parkill said ACON had identified a large number of meal and grocery assistance agencies operating in the area and that it will be working toward identifying which providers are “best placed and willing to work with us”.
“We’re certainly not intending to shunt people with HIV into unsafe and inappropriate settings nor do we expect that clients should have to investigate alternative service options unsupported."