Ahead of Homelessness Week, which runs from 6 to 12 August, we talked to Mee Sook Kim from Lilydale Uniting Church. Mee Sook volunteers with ecumenical homeless shelter program Stable One.
Q: How does Stable One work?
Over the coldest 13 weeks of winter, seven churches in the Lilydale area take turns once a week to host people experiencing homelessness. The venues are run by volunteers and provide an evening meal, a bed and breakfast as well as a warm welcome and a chance to connect with people who care. The beds are packed into a trailer each morning and taken to the next night’s host church. Each church has a project manager. There is also a Daytime Support Centre which is open each weekday afternoon and for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays. Jenny Willetts, Stable One’s managing director, started the program based on a similar model in the UK.
Q: How does Lilydale Uniting Church contribute?
Our current venue is not suitable to host guests, but through the sale of our previous church property we have helped fund a part-time worker to help Jenny. We also have other volunteers besides myself. One gentleman drives the mini-bus from the day centre to the host church, another lady does afternoon shifts at the day centre and another is covering evening or overnight shifts. Also my husband, Lilydale minister Rev David Kim, volunteers.
Q: So Stable One needs a lot of community and church cooperation?
It’s a big job. There are 186 volunteers from many different churches but also non-church backgrounds who fill the roster. For 186 people their circumstances and their home environment have to be supportive to run this project for three months every night. It’s not easy. We are very, very proud of our area.
Q: How many guests does Stable One have? Where do they come from?
This winter we have had an average of six guests per night. There is a maximum of 10. The guests are referred by police, hospitals, emergency relief agencies or word-of-mouth. We assess guests before inviting them to the shelter and take low- to medium-risk people who are between houses and have nowhere to go. Often they have left a relationship, an unsuitable boarding house or have been ‘couch-surfing’. They must be over 25 years of age, managing their mental health and able to abstain from drugs and alcohol whilst staying at the shelter.
Q: What do you do?
On Fridays I alternate between afternoon or night shifts. There are two afternoon shifts at the day centre between 1-6 pm. We meet with guests who take advantage of the shower facilities and the other services in the town (doctor, pharmacy, library, laundry). In the evening there are four volunteers plus two cooks who prepare dinner. On overnight shifts I go to the host church from 10pm to 7am. There are always three volunteers on duty. At any time two must be awake while the third can have a two-hour rest. For the breakfast shift there are three volunteers.
Q: Night shift sounds tough. How do you get through it?
Sometimes it is tough. Last Friday, because a colleague was sick, I had to work during the day from 6.30am until 3pm and then did the night shift. Normally I try to make sure I try to have a bit of rest for one or two hours before I go to the 10pm shift. If I don’t have any other work to do I can rest the next day.
Q: What is your main role?
We just try to be supportive, caring and listen to the guests. It’s really important to listen them. When I was last on night shift one of the guests woke up at 1am and we had a good chat for over an hour. Recently one lady remembered me and my name. I just explained my name was Mee Sook and she was laughing at me. I shared a little of my story because I have a different background. We become friends very quickly.
Q: How do guests respond?
The guests really appreciate a comfortable and safe environment to stay inside during the coldest part of winter. We all support each other. On one shift a 77-year-old volunteer was worried about their grandchild being sick. Other volunteers and even the guests supported them and gave them a big hug to comfort them. We become family and that’s what a lot of people are lacking.
Q: Do you try to help guests get back on their feet?
Stable One’s motto is that it is “more than a place to stay”. It’s not just a place to sleep and eat. The church coordinators keep in contact with the guests and try to introduce them to boarding houses and other accommodation and jobs. If they need any advice or help they come back to Jenny as well. We have seen one guest find work and reconnect with his children and family.
Q: Do you have any training?
We had two training days where the police came and gave us good advice on drug use. Other professionals talked to us to make sure we can create a safe environment.
Q: Is it effective Christian outreach?
Two of last year’s guests were baptised into a church. As a new thing this year we have prayer boxes where guests put in prayer requests. This has been well used. There have been lots of ‘spiritual’ conversations and prayers with guests this year. It’s also an outreach program when we sit together with volunteers we have never met and who are not Christian.
Q: Is the Stable One concept growing?
Stable One has supported churches in the City of Maroondah to start their own program and is currently talking to interested parties in Bendigo and Sunbury.