Breakfast club

early morning centrePENNY MULVEY

EARLIER this year, visitors to Melbourne have expressed concern about the increasing numbers of homeless either sleeping rough or begging on city streets.

The issue erupted on the eve of the Australian Open, as tourists were confronted by a homeless camp at Flinders Street Station. Media outlets reported that people were witnessing drug use and felt unsafe walking past the camp. Ultimately, the Melbourne City Council, in concert with Victoria Police, moved the camp, leading to violent scuffles.

In the wake of that event, the CEOs of 36 Victorian homelessness, housing and social service organisations, including Wesley Mission Victoria, issued a public letter condemning the vilification of people sleeping rough.

Undeterred, the Melbourne City Council voted to ban homeless people from camping in the city. It is currently receiving submissions on the new law before a final decision is made this month.

The state government has also promised that a rough-sleeping strategy will be developed.

Tony Nicholson, the executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, has been appointed to head up this strategy.

Mr Nicholson is in agreement with the signatories of the public letter, that those on the streets are likely to have no other option due to lack of public housing and the rising cost of renting.

He is also investigating whether the lack of a coherent approach is adding to the problem. Numerous agencies are providing free meals and a range of other services to the CBD homeless. Is this drawing people to the city?

While the capital of Australia is a much smaller city than Melbourne, in Canberra it appears the various agencies and services talk to each other and provide individually tailored referrals.
The UnitingCare Canberra City’s Early Morning Centre (EMC) enables its homeless guests to access a range of services by just walking through its front door.

The day begins at the Early Morning Centre with hot breakfast. Guests are served scrambled eggs one day, pancakes the next. Cereal, tea and coffee are available. When finished, guests quietly leave to make room for others. The environment is friendly, dignified and honouring of each and every person.

Situated on busy Northbourne Avenue in the heart of Civic. The EMC has been serving the homeless Monday to Friday, since 2005.

Breakfast is served from 7.30 to 8.30. The Centre then closes its doors for 30 minutes to clean up before it reopens as a drop in centre, offering a range of essential services for guests – internet access; a hot shower; laundry facilities; newspapers to read; mail collection and a range of referral services.

The majority of guests to the EMC are male and aged over 30. EMC manager John McDonald has coordinated the service delivery of the Centre for the past eight years. With quiet authority he unobtrusively makes someone a coffee or hot chocolate, intervenes in a mild disturbance or hands out a food pack.

john mcdonald

John McDonald

Of all the jobs John has had over his working life, he said this is the most fulfilling. When asked what motivates him, John’s response is powerful in its simplicity.

“I love the people,” John said.

“I always think ‘but for the grace of God, there go I’. We’re only one accident away from needing a service like this.

“Rent arrears or a marital break-up, a brain twist or an addiction. Whatever it is, basically we are only one accident, one misfortune away, and I’m always mindful of that.”

Tuesdays at EMC are particularly busy. Dave from Centrelink arrives at 10am to sort out individual guests’ benefits. The sheet Blu-Tacked to the door of the meeting room already has a long list of names, all waiting for a confidential conversation. Casually dressed, Dave blends in. He has been coming to the EMC for a long time and has the trust of the guests. Zeke describes him as ‘a top bloke’.

Zeke is a regular at EMC. Canberra-born and raised, Zeke has been homeless for some time. He has five children he does not see and he knows that until he can be more reliable this situation will not change.

He is good humoured, chatty and grateful for EMC.

“Most of us would be screwed if we didn’t have this place,” he volunteered.

In one corner of the main room are two computers, both in use, which will shortly be linked up to the NBN. These screens provide a lifeline to families, often the only contact many of the guests have with their loved ones.

Café-style tables fill the room and, in another corner, a representative from OneLink sits, with a sign in front, ready to provide housing advice.

Another semi-regular visitor arrives and sets up his cardboard shingle, announcing Street Law, and a few people make their way to speak with him.
Lockers fill one wall of the room, providing a safe place for special belongings.

Gently rising above the good-humoured hum is the theme song of Sesame Street – another guest has borrowed the EMC’s guitar and is adding his personal flavour to the ambiance of the space.

Whilst the EMC focuses on the provision of food, an agreement with a local op shop provides guests with vouchers to renew their wardrobe every six months.
It also has a memorandum of understanding with a local dental surgery, and will send guests for a check-up, a clean or more serious surgery.

The Parliament House hairdresser pops over to the EMC every six weeks to offer free haircuts.

When the EMC first opened its doors in 2005, the Management Committee (comprising members of the Canberra City Uniting Church) was very clear on its objectives – to address some of the urgent daily needs of the homeless in Canberra, not through case management, but through service delivery.

EMC treasurer, Graeme Lowe, says the church wanted to offer something into the community services area, and its research highlighted homelessness as a significant issue. Mr Lowe explained that the chief minister of the ACT had an interest in ‘community inclusion’ and the initial grant awarded to Canberra City UC came under that descriptor.

When the EMC first opened its doors, it was a much smaller endeavour, offering breakfast and a mail service. Over time, and with further significant funding from the ACT government, the EMC has continued to evolve, offering more services to its guests.

“What the guests appreciate is that they are treated like normal human beings,” Mr Lowe said. “We deliberately chose the term ‘guests’ to indicate that they are not clients in the traditional sense.

“Nevertheless, we operate within a framework that they have to comply with the processes we are using, and so on.”

The EMC has very few paid staff, but two people are engaged for a few hours each week to run a coffee cart out the front of the EMC during breakfast. This was a very deliberate decision by the committee, to help literally ‘open doors’ to their guests.

“There are people who cannot come inside the café space,” Mr Lowe explained.

“It’s just something that terrifies them, to be sitting down at a table with another person. This is all scary stuff for some people who come.

“They start at the coffee cart and might just get a coffee and walk away. Then they start talking with other people who are there and progress to coming inside the centre. And, you know, it’s possible to evolve from there.

“When they are comfortable in the space you can have a conversation, ‘did you think about talking to Centrelink about this?, or do you need some legal advice?’

“It’s not formal case management, but there is certainly an interest in what people’s needs are, and making access to them.”

In October, Chris Stokman, the long-term director of the EMC died of cancer. Chris had been the advocate and initiator behind most of the partnerships and funding. An unstoppable force, Chris bent the ear of politicians, local businesses and other service providers. She found people to run art classes, provide medical support, and give financial advice. Care Financial teaches guests how to budget, negotiate with electricity providers and other skills necessary to survive in a monetary society.

A special memorial service for Chris was held at the EMC, and many guests attended to farewell a much-loved ‘family member’.

Graeme acknowledges that Chris’s shoes will be hard to fill, as she was so connected across all parts of community.

“To get parliamentarians who want to stand up in Federal Parliament and make statements about Chris was a surprise to even us.”

Graeme loves the way the EMC can transform the lives not just of guests, but the many volunteers, visitors or service providers.

“People who get involved see that this is something that is worthwhile. If you have no connection with those who are homeless or struggling, it’s easy to put them in a category and blame them for their circumstances,” he says.

“People say, ‘oh well, just push your way out of it and get on with it’. But there are some who won’t, and sometimes can’t, really occupy a house. They can’t manage being in that sort of enclosed space.

“There are many things that need to be worked on before you can just put someone into a nice one-bedroom apartment. Really that’s the connection. That’s what makes it worth doing.”

Maybe Tony Nicholson will look at this model as he works on a rough sleeping strategy for Melbourne’s CBD.

What is central to the problem of homelessness is exactly that, no home. In the CEOs’ public letter, they wrote “Like you and me, what people who are homeless want is a safe, affordable and, most importantly, permanent place to call home … until something is done about the national housing crisis that underpins this problem, we are simply bailing water on a sinking boat.”

OneLink in Canberra is key to providing a coordinated support to that city’s homeless. Its website states: “OneLink can talk to you about housing options, including emergency accommodation. OneLink can provide information about public housing, community housing, private rental and other options, and about what assistance might be available for you to secure a tenancy.”

Its main purpose is to provide information and easy access to support services in the ACT. Is such a service scalable? Could OneLink become the blueprint for other governments and local councils as they search for solutions to complex social problems?

For further information about Onelink, http://www.onelink.org.au.

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