1 April 2021

Safe Shelter reassesses mission after COVID cancels another winter

| Ian Bushnell
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Safe Shelter church hall

Men wait to enter a Safe Shelter church hall during a previous Canberra winter. Photo: File.

Canberra’s homeless men will face another winter without the backstop provided by community group Safe Shelter, but the organisation is taking heart that an alternative service will step into the breach.

Safe Shelter has been providing a warm, safe place for homeless men to shelter during the cooler months for years but the pandemic stopped it from operating out of the three inner-city church halls involved in 2020 and the incomplete vaccine rollout means it cannot go ahead this year either.

It is now reassessing its mission but will redirect its energies to supporting the Argyle Housing winter initiative at Ainslie Village, advocacy and continuing to assist Canberra’s rough sleepers with practical help.

Coordinator Richard Griffiths said the two-year Winter Lodge program, part of the ACT Government’s COVID-19 response, would provide a bed for the night to up to 18 homeless men, twice the number that Safe Shelter could help.

“That is very welcome and it has allowed Safe Shelter’s Coordinating Committee to look at longer-term plans to support rough sleepers,” he said.

Sometimes at loggerheads with government policy, Mr Griffiths said the community-funded Safe Shelter had showed that its work had given more than 72 per cent of its ‘guests’ the chance to find more permanent accommodation.

“Safe Shelter’s experience with homeless men in previous years showed that providing a safe place to sleep gave most guests breathing space to sort themselves out before their homelessness became permanent,” Mr Griffiths said.

It was pleasing to see that the government had taken the lessons from Safe Shelter and applied them to the Winter Lodge, he said.

Mr Griffiths said Safe Shelter would now support the operations of the Winter Lodge and advocate for it to expand its services to every day of the year, like the MacKillop House service provided to homeless women and children.

It would also continue providing swags and sleeping bags to rough sleepers who use the Red Cross Roadhouse in the Griffin Centre in Civic where they can get a free hot meal and the Early Morning Centre, in Canberra Uniting Church, which also provides food as well as community support services.

But Mr Griffiths said it would be investigating other ways the group’s funds could be used to directly support Canberra’s rough sleepers.

Volunteers who have staffed Safe Shelter’s church halls in past winters have been encouraged to volunteer at the Winter Lodge and with charity Orange Sky Laundry.

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Mr Griffiths said of the church halls, the Salvation Army’s Canberra City Corps was about to undergo a change in focus but St Columba’s Uniting Church in Braddon will be providing storage for the swags and sleeping bags.

All Saints Anglican Church in Ainslie is also assisting providing parking and seasonal storage for Orange Sky Laundry’s vans and their equipment.

Mr Griffith said it was hard to know just how many rough sleepers were on Canberra’s streets but the ACT’s housing situation was not getting any better.

The Winter Lodge will operate much like Safe Shelter with men able to be referred there up to 5 pm each day but no entry after 8 pm.

A bed is available on a first come, first-served basis, and although it is an overnight service there is the potential to stay up to a maximum of seven days and Argyle Housing staff will help guests to find appropriate long-term housing if required.

All guests have to sign an agreement to stay under the existing Ainslie Village Social Code of conduct.

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