Melbourne News

Homelessness and Covid-19

Monday 6 April 2020

Chris Middendorp, Sacred Heart Central

In these days of Coronavirus, there are new and freakish challenges for all of us. For those who are experiencing homelessness, social stigma and isolation are all now magnified to absurd levels. Community services are scaled back or shut. Doors are closed and bolted. Meals options are dwindling and harder to find. The lifelines are suddenly looking tenuous.

We’re still here providing meals and social contact, albeit modified to appropriate government safety standards. This is not just a new challenge, it’s an existential predicament. It demands equal parts quiet compassion and frantic innovation.

For the person rough sleeping on the streets who can’t find crisis housing, what does physical distancing mean when others generally avoid them by default?

People who are homeless are used to others keeping their physical distance, already. For many years they have been overly familiar with people walking around them, or visitors putting on rubber gloves when they get close, disinfecting hands after any contact.

And now some community generosity is turning away to focus on immediate family and friends rather than strangers who have always done it hard. This is understandable, but it’s a bitter pill.

At Sacred Heart, we are working creatively to get food out to isolated people who have nowhere to live or are residing in rooming houses with limited access to meals and cooking facilities. New questions are fired at us like missiles. How do people get access to showers and medicine and social interaction, when so many services have closed albeit for sound reasons?

How do we really define an essential service in a time like this? At the heart of being human is conversation and face-to-face contact. How do we attend to people’s core need for social interaction, for comfort and connection in situations where barriers and aloneness have come to be seen as a virtue?

It’s heartbreaking to observe the strictures of physical distancing. A group of people so often shunned by the wider community now sometimes feel they are being shunned by the very community workers who provide them with support. Staying two metres away from people, wearing a mask and gloves while you provide them with a nutritious meal in a sealed container is totally right and deeply wrong, simultaneously. Today we all have to keep two sets of books.

But resourcefulness and goodwill endure. Our staff are busting to provide services and support even if it means doing it in ways never before thought possible. Or probable.

Speaking of creativity, we recently needed to provide hampers with pasta to those people who are able to cook in their bedsits. Unfortunately, panic buying had eroded stocks of pasta sauce. Disaster. Sauceless pasta is a ‘no go’ for anyone. Fortunately, our meals program chefs were able to work with a local grocer’s donation of vegetables to make dozens of bottles of tasty pasta sauce. Now all that pasta can become meals for hungry people.

Support from the community and from generous businesses remains more vital than ever so we can keep sourcing food and providing those meals.

We also hope to provide a mobile phone to those without one. A worker will make a regular personalized call to provide support and information and check that people are ok. 

Our organization and workers will find ways to make the masks and barriers work and identify humane but safe points of contact. We will continue to provide a nutritious meal and attend to the numerous crises that befall people struggling with disadvantage, albeit in spaces modified and with practices altered.

We will continue to get people medical services and clean clothing and access to housing. And alongside all of this will continue to reach out to the community to help us in our work.

Chris Middendorp is manager of Sacred Heart Central

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