About six years ago, a group of people from different churches got together who were concerned about the fact that there were lots of homeless people in Canberra, many of them sleeping on the street. They started to think about how to offer some emergency accommodation for them. The group had people from the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church, the Rotary Club of Canberra and some from the Early Morning Centre, a Canberra City Uniting Church project, supported by the ACT Government, Social Housing and Homelessness Services.
They came up against lots of barriers, as there were many empty spaces, but nothing was offered or available or didn’t comply with the government regulations regarding offering shelter with showers to people. But then, a year later that legislation was adjusted so that as long the shelter had access to showers within 10 to 15 minutes walk it could work. Then, The Safe Shelter Group formally wrote to the Church Council of the St Columba’s Uniting Church seeking approval to run a pilot program in their Lewis Hall on Wednesday nights between May and September.
Throughout the winter of 2013, St Columba’s Safe Shelter Pilot Project saw 12 bed nights accommodated with the support of 36 volunteers, in conjunction with the Early Morning Centre that offers showers among many other services for homeless people. At the end of the season, they brainstormed again and decided to open three nights a week the following year.
After joining with Richard Griffith, the Shelter Coordinator from the Anglican church, and partnering with the Salvation Army they all decided to contribute together to the same initiative, and since 2018 they have managed to open seven days a week in three different sites.
“It’s a slow and long process for men in the street to trust you”, said Alice Ferguson, Chair of the Coordinating Committee. They have won all their guests trust, who are all willing to follow the basic rules of the shelter. They are constantly building a mutual respect relationship with every one of them. Whenever a minor incident arises, men would stand up and make sure everyone settles down. Body language its quite self explanatory while protecting the rules and wellbeing of the shelter, the volunteers and the guests.
These people come to us because they want a safe, warm place to sleep. There are just people like you and me.Alice Ferguson, Chair of the Coordinating Committee
Every year numbers keep growing, and regardless of the reason, all volunteers are working hard to gain the trust of their potential guests. They not only receive men that have been wandering through the streets, but they also have men brought by the police, from hospitals, Centrelink and all over Canberra.
According to the Canberra Times, “In the first seven weeks of winter (2019), demand at the (Safe) shelter has jumped by 80 per cent, offering 309 guest nights compared to 171 over the same period last year.”
They are always willing to receive new volunteers who are trained through different workshops held during the year. Most of the volunteers are in their late 20s to early 40s, and they are not affiliated or even go to the Church. All they want to do is making a difference in other peoples’ lives. They sincerely care for their fellow human beings.
“I thought and felt that it was worthwhile as it made homelessness less of an abstract ‘social problem’ which I had very little experience of and I turned my experience of it into a hopeful one. Hopeful because the men I met were such decent people who were intelligent, resourceful and smart. For me, it was a privilege to be able to enter into their lives if only briefly, to help out and to hear their stories. It was an eye-opener in a good way, not a reactive way.”An anonymus 2018 Volunteer testimonial.
Always welcome at Safe Shelter
Usually, before sundown, men start to line up. At 7 pm doors are opened, and volunteers are ready to welcome all guests. They go through the rules with each of them; afterwards, they get in and get comfortable, no ID is required (only first name and the first letter of the last name for reporting purposes). Doors are locked, and lights are out at 10.00 pm.
Next day, all guests are woken up at 6 am, fold their swags have a hot beverage with biscuits and leave the shelter. They can go to the Early Morning Centre for a hot breakfast, take a shower, do the laundry or counselling among other services. No bookings are required although there have been a few time that they have had to turn men away due to high demand. They run only through wintertime.
This year the shelter will operate until 26 October, seven nights a week from 7 pm to 7 am. All Saints Ainslie opens Sunday & Monday nights, St Columba’s Braddon opens Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday while Salvation Army Canberra City Corps opens Friday & Saturday nights. They have toilets available. They also provide swags if required.
Your prayers, expressions of support, offers to be a volunteer and donations are warmly appreciated. Please contact the Safe Shelter Coordinating Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website
Pictured Above: Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey and Alice Ferguson
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