The fight for SJ’s homeless

The fight for SJ’s homeless

Liesl and dad, Kevin Bailey, with some of the donated clothes and fresh food available for people in need.

When Stuart McLellan first saw the impact that Perth-based charity Homelessness We Care was having on hundreds of food-deprived and homeless people outside Royal Perth Hospital each night, it got him wondering whether a need existed in the Shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale.

After consulting with the SJ Community Resource Centre, he made headway into uncovering the growing numbers of people sleeping rough on the outskirts of the shire.

“The City of Perth aren’t that keen on homeless – they tolerate them, but mostly they move them on. Armadale moves a lot of the homeless on, so does Mandurah,” he said.

“Murray and SJ, we’re the two end points with bush behind us – so it’s easier to be homeless up here and remain unseen than in the middle of a busy city like Mandurah.

“A lot of the people who are homeless they have a car; they can drive, and they’ve got enough money for fuel. So, they will go somewhere when it gets dark, sleep until light, and then move on because they’re frightened that the rangers will come and choof them on.

“We can’t just keep saying ‘move on, move on, move on’.

“And thankfully in our shire that’s not the case – our ranger services are absolutely brilliant.”

Stuart McLellan is the brains behind the SJ’s-own branch of Homelessness We Care

He approached the shire earlier this year to garner support for a local branch of Homelessness We Care. His idea was to provide a comprehensive grassroots service which helps people back on their feet. And the response was enthusiastic.

“So often we are so busy, that we don’t stop, and we don’t look, and we don’t notice those people who live in the shadows of our community,” shire deputy president Tricia Duggin said.

“That’s what Homelessness We Care does. They give them more than just food – they give them dignity too.

“It’s about saying – you’re someone who’s welcome in our community and you have every right to be seen like everybody else.

“And they empower the whole community to know what to do to help.”

Each Friday for the past two months, Stu, his wife Coral, and a committed team of 30 local volunteers set up a space behind the Byford Library where people can come and get a warm meal, fresh clothes, groceries, and a hug.

Volunteers Pauline Winspear and Eileen Farrell

“Our focus here on Friday night isn’t just giving people a feed. It’s getting our volunteers to sit down with people, have a chat, and make them feel loved,” Stu said.

“One of the things we happily hand out is hugs. For homeless people it might be the only hug they get all week.”

Stu’s right-hand man Kevin Bailey has found a new purpose in giving someone their smile back, spending thousands from his own savings to get the local charity up and running.

“The appreciation is written all over their face – that’s a reward in itself,” he said.

Cr Tricia Duggin and volunteer Kevin Bailey

There’s also a vet on hand, and a hairdresser, and clients are able to get referrals to health services, mental health and addiction support, and even get help finding a job. Free mobile laundry and shower service Orange Sky will soon become an integral part of the set-up.

What started as a spark of an idea has now erupted into a whole-of-community approach to tackling the growing problem of homelessness exacerbated by the current housing crisis.

The shire and local police are on board. And several local businesses and community groups are acting as drop-off points for donations.

There’s a special relationship developing between Homelessness We Care and the Byford Baptist Church. And charities like the Salvos in Byford and St Vinnies in Kelmscott, have been donating anything surplus to their needs.

Sam Fowler and Michelle Smith from Armadale Maxima Group were on hand at Friday’s community barbecue to give out supplies and support in finding employment.

Currently around 20 to 30 people use the service each week. And in the few months it’s been operating, there has already been several success stories.

Stu said he recently helped a young man in Mundijong who was struggling with addiction and living out of a suitcase.

“We organised an appointment for him with Palmerston to deal with his addiction. He’s now moved back with his parents, and he’s looking for a job,” Stu said.

“There’s been a number of times we’ve helped people get out of the rut they’re in.”

But while it’s easy to get wrapped up in the individual success stories and immediate needs of people doing it tough, Stu is carefully developing a framework for the service to make sure it is sustainable and meets needs well into the future.

Together with the shire and Murdoch University, they’re conducting a study which counts the homeless people in the area, and maps where they’re living in order to provide useful information for emergency services during a natural disaster like a bushfire.

“And we’re looking at what the loss of identity through being homeless is doing to these people,” he said.

“You’ve got to remember, if you’re homeless and you don’t have an address, you can’t get Centrelink benefits. Because the form requires you to have a street address. If you’re homeless, you’re already feeling pretty lousy, and your government rejects you because you don’t have an address – you become like a refugee.

“We’re also hoping to put a futures plan together so we can look at now up until 2030. So, when the train station opens in Byford, we’re ready for the people who come out into the country.”

Photographs – Richard Polden