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We Need to Talk About Homelessness: Part 2

Written by Sophie Allen

This is part 2 of our homelessness series, to read part one click here

“A meal is a way of connecting with someone. A hungry belly is not good, but the connection that comes after the meal is equally important.”

- Robina Bradley, CEO, St Mary’s House of Welcome

St Mary's House of Welcome

Melbourne’s homelessness is at emergency levels. But what are we going to do about it? In the first article of this two-part series, we looked at how the Victorian state government responded during the pandemic and why this increased level of support needs to be maintained.

In this article, we hear about the impact of the pandemic from people on the ground and consider what the future for homelessness in Melbourne could be.

Reacting to COVID-19

This year Melbourne saw the greatest effort at rehousing the homeless that Australia has seen to date. Yet, even as hotels were opening their doors to the homeless, shelters were forced to shut. As a focal meeting point for disadvantaged communities, shelters provide essential services and invaluable aid. Faced with the impossible task of meeting the needs of vulnerable clients and abiding by public health restrictions, homeless support centres had to swiftly change their service model.

Robina Bradley, CEO of St Mary’s House of Welcome (SMHOW) in Fitzroy, remembers what it was like at the beginning of lockdown. “In March, we were a very different service”, she recalls. “We went from catering for up to 200 homeless people per day with a full roster of volunteers to having no volunteers and no dining hall.” Normally, SHMOW has over 250 active volunteers supporting their work.

As a result, she says, “We had to think differently, and immediately turned our mind to logistics.”

Food Security under Lockdown

Although the government’s hotel accommodation provided a place to sleep, food or other amenities were not included. Collaborating with organisations like the Parliament House kitchen, StreetSmart, the Salvation Army, Launch Housing and others, SMHOW helped to prepare, pack and deliver nutritious meals to hotels. Through these partnerships, Ms Bradley says they increased their output from 250 meals to 700 meals a day.

Through grants provided by StreetSmart, well-known local establishments helped supply lunch boxes. SMHOW also worked with other catering groups, including Lentil as Anything and The Catering Company. Ms Bradley says she was taken aback by the generosity of the community, “It was fantastic.” Yet, the partnership benefitted both parties, helping keep people employed in the restaurant industry too.

But the homeless are not the only beneficiaries of this largesse: falling into unemployment, between 100 to 200 vulnerable international students have been visiting SMHOW for meals through a collaboration with Australian Catholic University and the City of Yarra.

Ms Bradley says the government support has been invaluable, as have the grants from StreetSmart and the City of Yarra. In addition, donors and sponsors have provided discounted refrigerated vans, fridges, and freezers for the delivery service. This is key because 40% of SMHOW’s income comes from fundraising. Government grants support wages for some staff and social workers, whilst other clients are supported by the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The entire meals programme, however, is totally dependent on fundraising.

The fridge in St Mary's House of Welcome

Mental Health Check

Apart from basic essential services like housing and food, mental health has been of key concern for both homeless individuals and their support workers. SMHOW has continued to do community outreach and mental health checks, organising phone calls between caseworkers and clients. Well-being packages with a puzzle, a piece of soap and a message asking, “Are you okay?” have gone a long way in providing respite.

Admittedly, it hasn’t been the easiest of times. Clients have been anxious about what it means to wear a mask, worrying whether they will catch the virus, and wondering when they can come back and see their friends. Ms Bradley also points out those who are housed are still vulnerable. Finding ways for them to access social connection is vital.

Yet, Ms Bradley says the mental health of SMHOW’s clients has been significantly improved by the donations of food, gifts, and wellbeing packs. Students at Xavier College and St. Mary’s Anglican Girls School in Perth, for example, donated over 150 handmade masks designed with messages to say, ‘We’re thinking of you’. Ms Bradley says, “While it’s great to not have to worry about meals for the day, our clients also feel uplifted knowing there’s someone out there who cares about me.”

Though staff have been grateful to be able to continue helping the community, the constancy of work, busy hours and high demand mean that downtime in the afternoon has become part of the regular program to conduct mindfulness training in self-care.

The “New Normal”

No-one will be able to enter the SMHOW centre en masse anytime soon. However, SMHOW has devised a system to continue offering help at the front door to around 100 clients a day. Physically distanced queuing behind a perspex screen means clients can still come and receive a temperature check, lunch and a coffee. This visit is also an important opportunity for an emotional check-in.

Adjusting to this took time, however. Educating clients about the need for physical distancing wasn’t easy, and SMHOW had to be firm about not accepting people without a face mask. It may have taken a few goes, but slowly the SMHOW community has been coached in the new public health measures.

Future Uncertain

Ms Bradley says it is difficult to predict the outlook for the year ahead, as the impact of the recession is still uncertain. The greatest challenge moving forward will be how to sustain the volume of meals that SMHOW has been supplying and tying in mental health and social support into the meals programme.

Last year, SMHOW served a total of around 50,000 meals. Since the pandemic began, the organisation has delivered 75,000 meals, even without their workforce of volunteers. Thus, strategic partnerships between local agencies have, and will continue to be, key. Ms Bradley warns that we can’t just move on, but need to share the knowledge gained from this time and leverage the lessons we have learnt this year.

One thing is for certain - things won’t go back to the way they were. With physical distancing the new norm, homeless support centres will have to look at other ways to socially engage, perhaps with small groups of people meeting outdoors for lunch or coffee, tai chi or music.

Lateral Thinking

“We need to think differently. My hope coming out of COVID-19 is that many of our community will be housed and we can find another point of need to support. Whatever the spirit of Welcome will still be strong,” Ms Bradley concludes.

The homeless community is resilient, as are the people who work with them. In the midst of a crisis, we have seen a groundswell of generosity and support. But as we start to leave the worst of the pandemic behind us, let’s not lose momentum on solving the issues that matter.

Robina Bradley, CEO, St Mary’s House of Welcome


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