It has taken years for the Southern Mornington Peninsula Uniting Church to secure funding for its ambitious plan to build supported social housing for people with a disability who are in the care of ageing parents. But, according to congregation member Peter Hunter, that’s just the beginning.
“It is an enormous first step,” Mr Hunter said of the announcement of funding for the Cloverleaf project. The project will see a two-storey, four-unit accommodation complex built on land donated by the congregation next to its church in Rosebud on the Mornington Peninsula.
Local MP Greg Hunt held a media conference at the site on 10 June to announce that the federal government would match a state government commitment of $1 million, ending a long search for funding for the project.
“When we first got the news it was an enormous relief,” Mr Hunter said.
“It seems like you are pushing uphill all the time until you get some credibility about the project and personnel.
“People in the congregation were just rapt. Some were wondering if this will ever happen.
“It took a long time to get the circumstances right. It’s pretty amazing.”
It is anticipated the $2.4 million Cloverleaf centre will be completed by late 2017 or early 2018 and be able to house eight people with disabilities.
Project Cloverleaf came out of the merger of three congregations on the Peninsula three years ago.
Before amalgamation, the Visioning Committee began to discern the mission of the new gathering.
Committee member Jan Hall had read an article in a local paper about Community Lifestyle Accommodation (CLA), a campaigning group of ageing parents caring for children with severe disabilities.
The Visioning Committee met with the group headed by the formidable Marie Hell, who was a finalist in the recent Victorian Disability Awards.
The congregation members learnt that the parents, some of them in their 80s, often had no respite from the full-time role of caring for their children.
After bad experiences with state care, the parents were very worried about what would happen when they were no longer around.
Eight families from the CLA have chipped in $30,000 each to help fund the project.
“These are amazing people,” said Mr Hunter.
“Their passion to make sure that something is done is amazing.”
Mr Hunter, a 68-year-old retired engineer, said the project had given the 90-strong congregation, many in their later years, a “new life”.
“It’s the church in action, hopefully the start of something much bigger. There is so much need,” Mr Hunter said
“There is such a synergy in this with our mission to help people from the margins who have been forgotten.”
Ms Hell said she felt the Church’s intervention and continued partnership with CLA was nothing short of a miracle.
“It was a gift from God. I have no doubt in the world about that,” she said.
“It was a match made in heaven. It has just been wonderful.
“When we have needed someone they have arrived. We were not carrying this burden by ourselves anymore.”
Mr Hunter said that in receiving the federal government money the project was cited as a great example of community participation.
Southern Mornington Peninsula Uniting Church is moving to do further outreach by turning its church into a community hub with spaces available for different groups, including the people with a disability.
This plan involves turning pews into seats and opening up areas to invite people in.
To financially support this mission work, some of the church land will be used for residential housing.
Mr Hunter said that from the time the three congregations came together, they recognised the need to work with the wider community.
“The church needs to look outside itself to survive,” he said.
“It unified the three congregations with focus on the mission. Our unity of purpose is on mission.”
The church will continue to work with CLA and other community groups to drive Cloverleaf forward.
Community participants will be welcomed to an afternoon tea in a few weeks’ time to “keep the momentum up.”
“The key in all this was the congregation was closely involved with people in the community,” Mr Hunter said.
“Rather than a church project, it is a community project the church is giving leadership to. It doesn’t have to be the church doing it all.
“We want to closely involve the parents, particularly aiming at the ageing carers where the big hole is.
“By having community participation we want to have a home-like feeling.”
Ms Hell said the aim was to create an alternative to the sometimes impersonal care facilities that parents were not comfortable leaving their children in.
“We are creating homes with some TLC,” she said.
“That’s because they (Cloverleaf residents) will be treated as people, part of the church community.
“The church is a welcoming place for everybody. An extended family, that’s what the church has been to us.”
Ms Hell said safety is a big issue. Some parents found their children had been beaten or robbed by other residents in care situations.
Ms Hell’s 45-year-old son Geoff is severely disabled. She has been his sole carer since her husband passed away in 2010.
She knows of many other families in a similar position, with parents in their 70s and 80s providing round-the-clock care for their adult offspring and desperately worried about what will happen when they are gone.
“As a nation we should be ashamed of ourselves to let families live in fear of this, in fear of dying,” she said.
Last year it was reported that 15,000 Australian parents aged over 65 accessed services when caring for an adult child with a disability.
A 2012 report commissioned by Carers Victoria estimated there were 16,800 aged parent carers overall in Australia, which had increased from 6400 in 2003.
The eight people to be taken in as Cloverleaf residents will be decided by an independent panel, with none of the 18 registered families guaranteed a place.
It is this urgent need that drives Southern Mornington Peninsula Uniting Church and the CLA to view Cloverleaf as a template to be copied.
“They (the CLA) don’t want to stop here, and neither do we,” Mr Hunter said.
“There are hundreds of people in our local area needing this type of accommodation and thousands around the suburbs.
“The urgency is there to get people security and satisfaction in their final years so they have the confidence their child or adult dependent will be left in a caring environment.
“I would dearly love to see other congregations joining with us in seeing a need and meeting that.
“We need to move forward as to how to replicate this project.”
According to Mr Hunter, an important aspect of the Cloverleaf project was that it showed a way that the church could help not just by donating its land but by providing credibility and backing to the project.
The land’s owner is the Uniting Church Property Trust and the board assumes the legal and financial responsibilities for the long-term Cloverleaf lease.
“The church is providing an instrument for government funding to be funnelled into the project,” Mr Hunter said.
“We have been able to help out at congregation and synod level.”
Mr Hunter said the National Disability Insurance Scheme presented opportunities for churches to use their assets and draw on government funding to make social housing financially viable.
He encouraged churches to take part in the Social Housing Project, which is a synod initiative to audit church properties and devise the best means to utilise them for social housing.
“We have the opportunity in the Church to do this,” Mr Hunter said.
“Lots of land, lots of buildings are underutilised. How do we commercialise the land to do the mission of the Church?
“I think that as congregations we sometimes don’t understand that we are stewards of our property and we need to make beneficial use of it.
“With all the resources the Church has, unless it’s for a purpose, what’s the point?”
Can we have a slice of cake and not just the crumbs?
“There are carers everywhere battling to survive in an inhumane system. Where is the compassion and value for human life? As our population ages, carers that chose to care for their child with an intellectual disability at home are now disadvantaged because they have to fight for support services, respite and full time accommodation.
Unpaid caring labour has saved the Government billions of dollars. We need the services and supports so that we too, can have quality of life for our children and peace of mind for ourselves. We have all, for so many years, foregone normal lives so that our disabled sons and daughters could have the best quality of life as valued members of our own family and community.
Carers are pleading for help and getting nowhere. Not only do we live with the stress of caring, but we live in horror of not being able to ease our children into accommodation that is appropriate to their needs. Our children do not deserve to be exposed to a crisis response to their housing needs when we die or can no longer care because of illness. There needs to be a transition from the family home into appropriate accommodation before we die.
Aging carers have stated that they would rather take their loved ones with them when they die than leave them to an uncertain and insecure future. Carers and their children are human beings and their lives are at stake!
We live in a wealthy and beautiful country. Where is the compassion for carers and people who, through no fault of their own, are born with an intellectual disability? Why can’t they expect a comparable existence to that enjoyed by the rest of the community?
Why can’t they eat the cake instead of being fed crumbs?”
Extract from a letter written by Marie Hell.