When Covid-19 first appeared, the staff at St Mary’s House of Welcome recognised that they would need to adapt in order to continue serving the disadvantaged people of Melbourne.
Opened by the Daughters of Charity 60 years ago, St Mary’s House of Welcome is known as a place where homeless people can go for a meal and a shower; a safe space for people living on the streets.
Amongst the usual clientele of people either suffering from or at risk of homelessness, the Brunswick Street premises is usually bustling with social workers, volunteers, adult educators and health professionals. But because of social distancing measures, the centre has been forced to suspend many of its usual activities and re-think the way it approaches homeless relief services.
‘We realised we just had to keep reinventing ourselves until we get through this,’ says Robina Bradley, CEO of St Mary’s House of Welcome.
The Covid-19 pandemic poses a unique risk to Melbourne’s homeless community, who are particularly vulnerable, owing to an inability to self-isolate or regularly wash their hands.
That’s why in March, the Victorian state government increased funding for crisis accommodation services as part of a $6 million dollar initiative to address a looming crisis in homelessness as businesses close and jobs are lost.
While not receiving government funding, St Mary’s House of Welcome welcomed the move.
Many rough sleepers and people experiencing homelessness were placed into temporary motel accommodation, through homeless accommodation agencies like Launch Housing and Sacred Heart Mission, as part of the state government’s response.
With many of the usual clientele from St Mary’s House of Welcome in temporary accommodation, Robina realised there was still an urgent need to be met.
‘Once people suffering homelessness are in accommodation, they need to be fed and they need to be supported,’ she says.
‘That’s when we came up with the Welcome Relief meals idea.’
The Welcome Relief program ensures no one goes without meals while they are in temporary accommodation by delivering meal packs to their doors.
Each day, St Mary’s House of Welcome delivers over 500 Welcome Relief meal packs to people in crisis accommodation across Melbourne. And the number is growing.
This service has proved crucial in assisting those who are still sleeping rough, living in cars, accommodated in sub-adequate rooming houses, or are otherwise vulnerable.
But creating and delivering 500 meals around Melbourne each day was a logistical challenge.
‘We realized that we couldn't be producing the meals ourselves,’ Robina says. ‘We didn't have the resources in the kitchen to be doing that.’
Instead, St Mary’s House of Welcome collaborated with community partners like StreetSmart.
StreetSmart Australia is a not-for-profit organisation supporting frontline initiatives for Australia’s homeless. They partnered with St Mary's House of Welcome to take part in the SmartMeals pilot program to match local restaurants with homelessness charities to help provide meals to rough sleepers during the Covid-19 crisis.
‘StreetSmart explained they would give a grant to local restaurants to keep them working and they would cook food for us to use and distribute,’ Robina says.
‘The meals are delivered to us from restaurants and the Parliament of Victoria kitchens as well.’
‘Launch Housing gives us a list of people in accommodation,’ Robina says. ‘And each day we send out several hundred meals all across Melbourne, making sure each person on the list receives a meal pack.’
With the dining room in the Brunswick street premises closed, staff have turned the space into a makeshift production line.
‘All my staff sit in a row, packing brown paper bags. It’s all sustainable, with bamboo cutlery, a cooked meal that could be anything from burgundy beef, a curry, a Bolognese or vegetarian options. We include a fruit salad, a sandwich, a piece of cake or chocolate mousse, all individually wrapped. And we include a Welcome Relief note in each.’
‘Packing meals is not what we trained to do,’ Robina says, ‘but is actually what we missionally want to do, so everyone is happy.’
In addition to packing meals for delivery, St Mary’s House of Welcome also offers a limited takeaway meal service for those still sleeping rough.
They distribute up to 120 meal packs from the front window of the Brunswick Street premises each day as well as providing showers, food hampers, laundry vouchers, emergency relief, material aid and other support.
‘We drew the squares up outside and clients line up and come in one at a time,’ Robina says. ‘When we moved to the front window, it felt like we were back 60 years ago. That’s how the Daughters of Charity started: distributing sandwiches from the front window.’
St Mary’s House of Welcome doesn’t receive regular funding for its meals program, despite costing several thousand dollars per week, but relies on the generosity of the broader public to provide this essential service. They enjoy the support of local groups, restaurants and catering companies like StreetSmart Australia, Ladro Gertrude, Lentil As Anything, The Catering Company and the Parliament of Victoria kitchens to help supplement meal packs and hampers.
‘It’s wonderful,’ says Robina. ‘And it feels so missional: this is why we’re here. It feels like we've reset ourselves to say, how can we make a difference for people that really are doing it hard at this time, and still let them know someone cares about them and knows they’re there?’
So far, the service is popular amongst the homeless community. ‘The feedback we’ve got so far is really gratitude being able to come and have a conversation because at the moment, it’s lonely and it’s quiet out there on the streets.’
‘The homeless community is wonderfully resilient,’ Robina says. ‘Life has dealt them many hard blows and they’ve learned to navigate life on their own. But they’re grateful to have the support and some normality in all this. They come in the morning and just smile.’
For many clients, Robina adds, conversation and connection is as much a drawcard as the menu. ‘It’s that little conversation, that connection we provide each morning along with a focaccia with a cup of coffee. Some of them go back to accommodation and some are just going back onto the street, but ours is always a place that they can come to and feel welcome.’
Welcome Relief is a House of Welcome response to ensure people experiencing chronic homelessness are provided with food, showers, emergency relief and other supports during the Covid-19 crisis. If you would like to support this work, please visit www.smhow.org.au/donate