31 August 2022

'You're always here for me': Vinnies Night Patrol celebrates 21 years of helping the homeless

| James Coleman
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Vinnes van

Celebrating 21 years of the Vinnies Night Patrol at the Canberra Southern Cross Club, Woden, on Monday, 29 August. Photo: James Coleman.

While the rest of us are tucked away in our warm beds at night, many others aren’t.

Jenny, for one.

Jenny has spent the past 21 years offering sandwiches, drinks, clothing and chats to Canberra’s homeless population alongside other volunteers with the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies). She recalls the first ‘Night Patrol’ in 2001.

“We felt so eager. We were ready to tackle anyone who might have looked a bit homeless, anyone who looked like they could do with a cuppa and a chat,” she said.

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The Night Patrol vans have become one of Vinnies’ most recognised “good works in action”, visiting streets across Canberra and Queanbeyan 364 nights of the year. The mission is simple but impactful: hand out drinks, sandwiches, fruit, clothing items, sleeping bags, blankets and hygiene packs to people in need, particularly those experiencing homelessness.

The service turns 21 this year and the milestone was celebrated on Monday (29 August) at the Canberra Southern Cross Club in Woden.

Vinnies vans outside the Southern Cross Club at Woden

Heroes in blue and white. Photo: James Coleman.

Canberra Southern Cross Club CEO Ian Mackay said that for 20 of the 21 years, the club had provided the sandwiches for the Night Patrol. When he started eight years ago, he went out with one of the patrols and was left struck by the kindness.

“There was sustenance, but there was also kindness, and that’s what this is all about.”

Last year, Vinnies helped more than 8000 through the Night Patrol and more than 5000 items were distributed.

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The new CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra/Goulburn, Lucy Hohnen, said it equates to tens of thousands of people helped over the years. She vividly remembered last Tuesday, when she attended the Night Patrol on a “record-breaking cold night for Canberra”.

“It was good timing – it reminded us exactly what we do and why we do it,” she said.

“I was struck by the dedication of the volunteers and the relationships between them and the companions. One guy said to me – and I will always remember this – ‘Vinnies is always here for me, and you come with no barrow to push’.”

There has been a shift in the demographic of homelessness in the past couple of years, as COVID-19 lockdowns made victims out of people who previously held secure jobs, stable incomes and comfortable homes. This has only been exacerbated by rising costs of living and a lack of affordable housing options.

Lucy said many of those who count as homeless nowadays aren’t found on the streets – they could be couch-surfing, sleeping in cars or having to make do with insecure housing.

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“We’ve got a changing population of people coming to us and we see the need increasing in the ACT,” she said.

“By the grace of God, it could happen to anyone.”

ACT Minister for Homelessness and Housing Services Rebecca Vassarotti agreed a lack of safe, comfortable housing is still a massive issue in Canberra, despite being one of the most affluent cities in one of the most affluent countries.

“While the issues of homelessness and housing stress are complex problems … we know Vinnies has made a difference and their hard work has truly improved our population of people sleeping rough across the city and beyond.”

Lucy Hohnen and Rebecca Vassarotti

Vinnies CEO Lucy Hohnen and ACT Minister for Homelessness and Housing Services Rebecca Vassarotti. Photo: James Coleman.

Volunteers go out seven nights a week in vans provided by Canberra Toyota. Vinnies is looking to expand the fleet to meet the growing demand and they’re always open to more volunteers.

As for Jenny, she’s not stopping anytime soon.

“I’ll continue as long as the body and mind can keep up.”

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