I volunteer at The Salvation Army’s Ringwood Corps (church) fortnightly as part of the inaugural Maroondah Winter Shelter program. The Salvos are one of several churches in the Maroondah area that have opened their doors to offer safe haven for homeless men during the coldest months of the year.
The participating churches have provided overnight accommodation and nourishing meals for men who have no home. The churches open their doors nightly on a rotating basis. Volunteers cook and help the men prepare their beds. Our training emphasised respect and recognising people’s dignity in difficult circumstances.
Starting a 10pm-7am shift at the Salvos, early on in winter, I wander in on a Thursday night. I greet the other volunteers, introduce myself to our guests, shake hands and have a yarn. It’s cold as you walk in the door, but you warm up quickly.
People, young and old, are in dire plights. There are some men with severe health conditions and breathing difficulties. Some of our guests are comfortable sitting down and having a chat over coffee. Others, well, not so much. They stick to their mates or prefer their own company. That’s okay. Trust is a plant that grows slowly, watered by reliable actions.
Talking footy or tennis or rugby league, or makes and models of cars, there is a normalcy. A mutual understanding. There might be awkward moments, too, but empathy and a smile cover a lot of ground. I’m one of a three-person shift. We chat quietly, do word puzzles on phones, knit, watch movies, read, sleep, try to decipher the world game in Russia, or watch Aussies get knocked out of Wimbledon.
There is the occasional possum bashing away on the church roof. Sleep doesn’t come easily to some. One guy complained of headaches, said his body was used to sleeping in 20-minute bursts. Others are relaxed, making themselves at home. Some have haunted eyes. The hope is that they will come to know the churches as safe places to shelter and survive the winter. I didn’t meet up with one bloke at all – he’d crashed after dinner, before my shift, and slept through until breakfast, when I had left to take my daughter to school.