“I feel like an observer and I want to participate,” says Allan, a first time guest at our homeless shelter at Christ Church St Laurence near Sydney’s Central Station. Allan has a debilitating illness which has, over the past eight-years, deprived him of everything – wife, family, job and home. His blood circulation is so restricted that he can only walk in short bursts. “This (shelter) is definitely the best,” he tells us. We know there is no competition with other shelters but it’s nice to hear anyway. Hopefully a friendly chat over a hot meal and a night’s rest can help.
Christ Church St Laurence has been running a homeless men’s shelter since 2001. The shelter is open on Saturday nights, and, as far as we know, we have been open every Saturday since the beginning.
Setting up and running the shelter has always been a joint effort. At the outset the Parish partnered up with Cana Communities (www.cana.org.au) and its legendary founder the late Fr Brian Stoney SJ and we gratefully operate under the Cana umbrella to this day. Cana, amongst other things, has several homeless shelters in Sydney. Although Cana’s origins are Roman Catholic, it is open to all faiths and denominations and people of no religious affiliations at all. This means that our parish can spread the net widely when we look for volunteers (many of us I’m sure have friends, families etc. who may be reluctant to share a pew but will help at the shelter). We also have volunteers from our neighbouring parishes of St Barnabas on Broadway (they field a couple of overnight teams) and St Luke’s Enmore. Cana’s profile turned out to be crucial when the State Government introduced new policy relating to homelessness. Thanks to the efforts of Cana’s then head Sr Anne Jordan and her team, our shelters (which were initially overlooked) were incorporated into the new system.
The “system” involves our other partner Link2home (www.housing.nsw.gov.au/help-with-housing/homelessness/are-you-homeless), a state-wide homeless referral service operating within the Housing section of NSW Family and Community Services. Each Saturday our volunteers call them for a list of men needing our emergency accommodation. Link2home provide this list cross-checked with their database and based on the men’s needs. Our shelter is made ready by an early team of two or three volunteers who prepare and set up for a meal and lay out the bedding. The men only overnight team (again two or three people) come in before the shelter opens to admit the guests. When most men are in, we all sit down for a great meal and some good yarns. Many men go to bed early. The early team cleans up and leaves. The overnight guys sleep over, help out with a very basic breakfast and pack up the bedding. Another team comes and collects the bed linen, which they take home to launder.
Throughout all this of course, we can expect the unexpected. The shelter has its own comprehensive guidelines, which I believe are not a rulebook but the tribal wisdom of the place. From my experience, I’ve found that if we heed it, things usually go well.
Christ Church St Laurence is a very busy place and the hall is needed for parish activities from about 7.30am onwards on Sunday, so we have to make the most of our window. It’s a juggling act to get the work done and spend enough time making sure our guests get the welcoming attention they need.
One of our volunteers, a Buddhist inspired by the Camino pilgrimage he took with a friend and fellow team member said, “I’m not poor, I can help… I never met people like this and I’ll never stop doing it”.
By Roger Bayley
Christ Church St Laurence Cana Shelter