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Winter shelter

9 August 2018

Jesus Christ once said about himself, to a would-be follower, that ‘the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head’ (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus knew what it was to be homeless. Having somewhere to rest your head is something that many of us take for granted.

It’s especially desirable in the coldest Melbourne winter since 1982, with the Bureau of Meteorology reporting a six-day average low temperature of 4.9 degree Celsius. For example, on 6 June, Coldstream (18.1 km from Ringwood) in the Yarra Valley had a low of -1C. Scoresby (12.5 km from Ringwood) dropped to 1C. A lot of people are feeling the cutting edge of winter.*

Inspired by the actions and experiences of churches in the Yarra Ranges, several churches have banded together to offer ‘Winter Shelter’ to homeless men in their region.  The churches are taking turns to open their doors and offer food and shelter to those in need throughout winter.

More than 200 volunteers have been trained and are meeting the needs of those men who have taken the churches up on their offer of a warm bed, healthy meals and a safe place to spend winter nights; 30 of those volunteers worship at Ringwood Corps. 

The Winter Shelter program (which commenced on Tuesday, 12 June) utilises the volunteer labour to drive buses and trailers, cook and clean, and provide a welcome and safe place.

People sleeping in the churches are referred by Wesley Mission Victoria, who assess applicants for the program. Guests must be ‘males of 24 years of age or older who are experiencing homeless and are from, or who have a strong connection, to the Maroondah area’.

Guests stay in the churches’ shelters, knowing that they are ‘dry’ locations and that the use of drugs and alcohol are prohibited on the premises. People with severe mental illness or ‘particularly aggressive behaviour’ are ineligible to be accommodated.

Training for church volunteers addressed topics including guest admissions, substance use, inappropriate behaviour, weapons, medications, guest vehicles, and occupational health and safety issues.

The men arriving at the Salvos help to assemble and make up the beds. They clean, help prepare vegetables and meals and gradually become comfortable in a previously unknown and scary environment.

Salvation Army worker Lisa Wynne, who serves as volunteer coordinator for the program, says that ‘working with other churches is part of our new national vision statement, which includes collaboration. We have seven churches who are hosting our guests and 12 churches all up on the committee.’

Lisa notes that all the 200 volunteers came from the churches, social media and word of mouth. When interviewed, Lisa shared that ‘we have hosted eight guests the past two weeks at Ringwood Salvos, and we’ve had one person end up in accommodation at the Army’s Gateways centre and one person has been admitted to  the rehabilitation program at the Army’s service at The Basin.’

‘We have a responsibility to share our resources,’ explained Major Peter Walker, a Ringwood corps officer and volunteer shift leader at the corps. ‘This work is part of our calling, our mission, our vision and our DNA, and the Winter Shelter is also proving to be a great opportunity to work with other local churches.’

Peter explained that the corps had heard about the opportunity to participate in Winter Shelter through Colonel Ian Southwell, a Ringwood Corps stalwart. ‘I heard about the program,’ Peter said,’ and I hoped the corps would get on board; they have done so with enthusiasm, genuine interest and warmth.’  

 ‘Mission is the announcement and demonstration of God’s kingdom,’ Peter added, ‘and God’s love and acceptance of people – this program is all about respect, and people deserve our respect and our recognition of their dignity. We’re all made in God’s image, and we want people to discover and experience God’s love and grace.’

The recognition of people’s dignity is essential, Lisa acknowledged. ‘We have to remember that it is only circumstances that have put these men where they are in life – they deserve our love and support. We have found that it is really a freeing experience, when you accept people just as they are. They’re just people with their own stories.’

While the Salvation Army volunteers experienced some initial nervousness and uncertainty, Lisa said ‘they have grown in confidence and built trust. And they have been extremely reliable and helpful. When you step out of your comfort zone and allow God to work through you, you find grace.  

‘We have had spiritual conversations with some men, who initiated the talks,’ Lisa added. ‘The guys wanted to say grace before meals, which led to a conversation about gratitude and God. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t pushed. It happened naturally.’
* It is estimated that 22,700 people are homeless in Victoria alone, with 1,350 people living rough on the streets and some 6,130 people living in over-crowded dwellings.
Click here for more information about the winter shelter
Click here to donate to support the winter shelter program
 Click here to find out about Melbourne’s 2018 winter