BY AARON STREATFEILD
Observing commuters struggling to stay dry during the severe weather in Sydney recently, Missionbeat’s Shane Sturgiss noticed a discarded blanket in a doorway. In their haste to seek shelter and warmth, commuters passed the discarded blanket without noticing it. But it was at this point Shane realised, this blanket was once a person’s possession, their protection, their warmth and their home. Where was the blanket’s owner now?
Homelessness Australia, a national support and advocacy body for homeless people, estimates 105,237 Australians live without homes. Six per cent live in improvised dwellings, tents or are sleeping without shelter. Factoring in severe storms, as seen throughout the NSW East Coast two weeks ago, and we can begin to imagine the impact on those without a stable home.
Even without the storms, the homeless community faces a multitude of hurdles daily: isolation, disconnection from society, mental health and stereotyping.
But extreme weather presents added challenges to people already facing extraordinary hardship, Program Manager for Mission Australia’s Missionbeat and Missionbeat Outreach Services Shane Sturgiss says. “Although generally a close community, the homeless are very protective of their regular dwellings,” he says. “In weather like we have seen recently, tensions arise when spaces are taken over by other rough-sleepers. This can encroach on a person’s sense of belonging in a particular space.”
During the storms Mission Australia and The City of Sydney Council opened Abraham Mott Hall to provide emergency shelter. Working around the clock in partnership with Family and Community Services and City of Sydney Council, Shane and his team managed to find temporary accommodation for 46 of the 61 people who accessed support services.
The state government responded well to the crisis, and are generally proactive when dealing with homelessness, Shane says. “They are very aware of the issues faced by the homeless.”
Support from the public was also strong during the storms. “We received a large number of calls. Before the crisis began we had three blankets in stock. We ended up with 400 blankets donated.” Missionbeat’s Facebook page became a forum for people’s fundraising ideas. “A large number of people were enquiring about donating to brokerage, a pool of funds that could be kept for such situations.”
But what else can people do to help? Shane agrees that money is always useful, but he is also a strong believer in innovation as a response to adversity.
“Last year I was approached by TAFE students undergoing a design course,” he says. “They had put forward the idea of ‘bindle boxes’ – lockers located in well-known areas where the homeless can store their belongings and keep them protected from weather and theft.” Shane is currently working with the students on obtaining a grant from the council in the hopes of implementing the idea.
An organisation that has successfully implemented another practical innovation is Swags For Homeless. Their heavy duty, lightweight swags provide portable shelter for people who cannot access temporary accommodation. One of the primary goals, listed on their website, is to ‘improve, support and bring back dignity to the homeless’.
While these products are not solutions to an ongoing problem, they are a Band-Aid for the time being. “Until that solution is found, we need all the Band-Aids we can get,” Shane says.
Homelessness Prevention Week starts the first full week of August. Visit the web page for more details.