Simon Chung is a veteran at Melbourne Project 614, having started nine years ago with the 24/7 team, working with adult homeless people, and the Magpie Nest Housing Project . Simon and his colleagues help to coordinate with and support homeless persons living in more than 40 homes in Reservoir, Preston, Clifton Hill and Collingwood.
Earlier this year, Simon was tasked with helping to train and coordinate the newly employed Concierges – people who had been homeless, and were now working for the Salvos to care for homeless people.
‘We started off with 10 people, some dropped out and we picked up some more. We are currently working with eight concierges; two women and six men,’ Simon explains.
The concierges play a supportive role through the week at Melbourne Project 614. They meet with staff and owners from neighbouring businesses, they talk with homeless people, encouraging them to access support services, and they help keep the place clean and safe.
Simon explains that the concierges also help with the large-scale feeding of breakfast and lunch to thousands of people through the week, liaising with the centre’s cafe staff and volunteers. ‘They can be on stand-by to help with other programs, too, and they are at the heart of what we do,’ Simon says.
Simon takes an organic, non-academic approach to the concierges’ training, with the concierges joining him and other staff in the laneways and in front of the centre, helping to create and maintain a safe space and approachable point of contact for homeless Melburnians.
‘Some of our concierges are more intuitive or confident than others, but they are all keen,’ Simon says. ‘We have demonstrated the role, and they are running with it. We have some staff meetings and we talk about roles, responsibilities, conflict resolution, and professional approaches to communication.
‘We did try learning in classroom settings but it wasn’t the best format, because our concierges work best when they can do so in relationship with each other and with the people they met.
‘These guys are from a different school; the school of hard knocks,’ he adds. ‘It takes patience to support and release them into their roles. We selected them for employment from the people who were already volunteering to help us.’
Asked how the concierges deal with inter-relational issues and their own challenges, Major Brendan Nottle (a Melbourne Project 614 corps officer) tells e-connect that ‘we all have our baggage, but relationships keeps us going’.
Major Nottle recalled that when Melbourne Project 614 first started things were done ‘in more of a transactional model, but we prefer to deal with each other as people, not consumers or clients.’ That’s where the concierges come into their own, having lived the homeless life of the people they were now helping each day.
‘We think The Salvation Army is about transforming lives,’ says the major, ‘it’s about people, and there’s no hierarchy here.’
Reflecting on the concierges’ interaction with homeless Melburnians – he reports the cafe had 192 and 163 people resting in it overnight, respectively, on the 24th and 25th of July – Major Nottle says that ‘loneliness is a huge issue, and the concierges know what it is to be lonely. So they can help us combat that loneliness.
‘Conflict resolution doesn’t stop some days, and this is not easy work,’ he adds, ‘but it’s part of coping with life for many people. The concierges, the cafe and Melbourne Project 614 help to provide a safety net for the city of Melbourne.’