Sanctuary for those in need

Winter Night Shelter logo Greater Shepparton Winter Night Shelter is into its second month with strong support from the community and a high rate of utilisation from those who “roam the streets” and are homeless at night. Here, the Shepparton News interviews one participant and a volunteer on the team. Greater Shepparton Mayr Kim O’Keeffe also provides support.


Greater Shepparton Winter Night Shelter Bus offering the Homeless a safe space to sleep

As dusk approaches on a leafy Shepparton street, people seeking refuge for the night start to gather as volunteers slowly unpack bedding and pillows.

The Winter Night Shelter is now midway through its second month and participants are starting to get into a comfortable rhythm — new arrivals are greeted with nods of hello and warm hugs, a growing familiarity apparent. The nightly routine has become well known among a small, but growing, group of men experiencing homelessness.

Each night, up to 10 people meet in a secluded area, where they are taken by van to one of a number of sites set up as temporary accommodation. On arrival, they are given a hot meal and a bed for the night, by a rotating team of volunteers who settle in with the men for the night. Often, the volunteers and the guests will stay up late into the night, sharing stories and reflecting on their past.

Jason * has used the shelter since it began at the start of June and said it had been a ‘hugely supportive’ experience. ‘The idea is brilliant,’ he said. ‘People feel like it’s a sanctuary, a safe space … I’m blown away by how great it’s going.’ ‘With all the volunteers, the commitment, the whole thing has just been phenomenal.’

While Jason said there were a few adjustments to be made on the managerial side of things, he had been surprised it had run so smoothly for its first year in operation. ‘It’s going really well — we get hot showers, incredible food and facilities, but opportunities are being opened up for us as well,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of really talented people out there on the street who just haven’t been heard, so that’s what it’s all about . . . bringing the people in, making sure they recognise it’s a stable environment and then they can present what they have to offer to the world.

‘We have so much fun … and moving around each night, it’s different all the time, whereas otherwise it could get boring for people — especially coming off addictions — they need constant change.’ Previously ‘roaming the streets’ for three years, when Jason was first referred to the shelter, he thought it’s better than sleeping in a tent. But since staying there, he has started volunteering at the Salvation Army, and found a more permanent place to focus on his art and creative side.

‘It would be wonderful if they realised this is working, and opened some units that people dropped by to make sure they were kept tidy,’ Jason said. ‘It’s a family setting, because a lot of people haven’t had that, or they had it and then they lost it, so if you bring them back into that, it’s so special. I don’t know where I’ll be next year but if I’m available I’d love to come back and be a volunteer … I’ve got a lot to offer as an emotional support to people.’

Volunteer Belinda King felt her time volunteering had benefited her just as much as it had provided comfort to the participants. ‘I’ve loved it, it’s very rewarding, I’ve been here from the beginning and my first shift was the first night,’ she said. Ms King has been working in the kitchen and supervising the shelters and said her relationships with the men had continued to grow. ‘We’ve pretty much had the same people the whole way through and you build relationships, we sit down, play cards, chat … they build up a real relationship with us now and feel comfortable to sit and have a chat,’ she said.

‘A few of them are quite open with their stories and it’s humbling … on freezing nights, you go home and feel so grateful they’ve had a warm place to sleep and a beautiful meal. Hopefully it’ll get bigger as people feel more comfortable … it’s so needed in our community.’

City of Greater Shepparton Mayor Kim O’Keeffe said she was overwhelmed by how the community had rallied to give the ambitious idea a go. ‘We have a team of nine volunteers each night over 91 nights,’ she said. ‘The community has got so far behind this. And when we do run the shelter, it’s really important we’re one group — it’s not them and us, it’s just like inviting someone into your house. Then while they’re in the shelter we look for ways we can connect people back to the community and other support services.’

Shift supervisor Melanie Domaschenz has been promoting mindful meditation through art therapy on her Friday shifts. ‘They tell their story in their own way with their art projects, whether it be indigenous art, sketching or writing … it’s a time to zone out and not think about the stresses of daily life for a while,’ she said. ‘We can’t change everyone’s life but we can change someone’s day-today.’

* not his real name

 

offering the Homeless a safe space to sleep


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