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Community: part two. It's all about connection.

April 2021

Community-led innovation is what we’re all about at Today. We’ve been wondering though, what does “community” mean to different people?

We had a series of conversations to unpack what community means to us, why it’s important and where it might be headed in the future. Our aim is not to nail down a one-size-fits-all definition of community, but to understand the spectrum of how we connect with each other, and how we might do it better in the future.

For part two of our series, Callan Rowe, Innovation Lead at Today, sat down with Jon Billiet, Acting Senior Coordinator at St Mary’s House of Welcome. St Mary’s House of Welcome provides support for the homeless community and has been since 1960.

Cal: So we might just start by getting you to introduce yourself and how you came to start working at St Mary's House of Welcome.

Jon: Hi, I'm Jon, Acting Senior Coordinator at St Mary's House of Welcome. I came to St Mary's House of Welcome in March 2019. I've been working in the homelessness sector for seven or eight years now, doing diverse jobs like case management, early intervention, assessment and planning. I started as a Community Support Worker, became a Team Leader and recently stepped in as Acting Senior Coordinator of homelessness programs here.

Cal: And for those unfamiliar with what St Mary's House of Welcome is and what the mission is. Could you just give us a little bit of an intro?

Jon: St Mary's House of Welcome is an open access day centre for the homeless and disadvantaged. We're located in Fitzroy and we’ve been here for 60 years. We focus on two distinct streams; homeless and disadvantaged and the NDIS psychosocial support program, which is one-on-one case management in relation to people with diagnosed persistent mental illness. So there's a lot of crossovers between the two, often we see clients first at the day centre and then potentially, they’re referred through to the NDIS program. St Mary’s House of Welcome originally started through the Daughters of Charity as a soup kitchen, and it’s grown and evolved over 60 years into what it is now.

Cal: Tell us a little bit about the communities at St Mary's House of Welcome, both with the client community and also your volunteers.

Jon: Some of our clients have been coming to St Mary's House of Welcome for over 30 years, so it’s a diverse community, in terms of culture, language, age and backgrounds. As with the nature of homelessness, our community can be transient at times.

We also have a large volunteer community of over 300 people, helping with a range of different things. We've got client volunteers who will be using the service for a while and then will help out with kitchen duties or serving food. We’ve got our corporate volunteers as well as those from the general community, who will help with the running of the service day-to-day. Our volunteers are invaluable, even though we’re a small organisation, they help us have a big impact, servicing 300 people per day in our community.

Cal: Why do you think people volunteer at St Mary's House of Welcome?

Jon: The community. The moment I walked in for my first interview, that was the thing that captured me. Though I’ve worked in homelessness for years, St Mary's House of Welcome is unique in what we offer. It’s evident the moment you walk in, that sense of welcoming in our amazing, purpose-built space.

But more than anything, the people make St Mary's House of Welcome what it is. It's the participants, it's the volunteers, it's the staff members. It’s cohesive, it’s diverse and it’s very welcoming. It’s what brought me on board initially. And obviously, I haven't left since!

But more than anything, the people make St Mary's House of Welcome what it is. It's the participants, it's the volunteers, it's the staff members. It’s cohesive, it’s diverse and it’s very welcoming. It’s what brought me on board initially. And obviously, I haven't left since!

Cal: What do you think it is that that gives the community that sense of cohesion, especially since it is so diverse?

Jon: There’s a general understanding that diversity brings a depth of community. Diversity brings a range of different opinions, needs, values and experience, which make St Mary's what it is. Given we've been here so long, our proud history contributes as well. Our mission and values of respect, relationships, welcoming, hopefulness and responsiveness, are the uniting principles that that cohesive community is built around.

Cal: That heritage is faith-based, like many volunteer organisations in this space, how do you find balance in an increasingly secular culture?

Jon: I think there’s an alignment generally in the community services' sector, a set of shared guiding principles, regardless of whether organisations are faith-based or not. Those foundations of respect, understanding and compassion are shared across the industry.

Cal: So there's some kind of universal values that apply to everyone?

Jon: Absolutely.

Cal: We’re seeing the definition of community shift away focusing on one place, but St Mary's House of Welcome is really like a Fitzroy institution. What role does being local and Fitzroy-based play in what you do?

Jon: People know that they have a safe place to come to at St Mary's House of Welcome. Though we’ve had to re-imagine what we do, people still recognise us. They know that they can always come and get a warm welcome, respect and a nutritious meal. Having the same physical location for 60 years has made us part of the fabric of Fitzroy, with threads to other services that our clients use.

We find often our referrals come from other clients rather than external services. Maybe someone experiencing homelessness for the first time chatted to someone at another service, and were encouraged to come to St Mary's House of Welcome for a shower and a meal. One challenge of being on the street is being visible 24 hours a day, but people know they can come to us and have a break and get support.

One challenge of being on the street is being visible 24 hours a day, but people know they can come to us and have a break and get support.

Cal: I wonder if you can foresee any long-term impacts as a result of the pandemic, either positive or negative changes, once we start to go back to normal.

Jon: One of the biggest challenges we've had is creating connections with our community members through restrictions and social distancing. So we've re-imagined what we're doing and focused on people's most immediate needs through crisis response and referral service. The thing that's been lacking, that our participants say time and time again, is that ability to connect with us and each other.

One of the positives has been the sector really coming together to respond, rather than services working in isolation. Working together on issues we’re all facing, like securing resources and providing the highest level of support given the restrictions and increased need through COVID.

Cal: That's really interesting. Can you give any examples of how that's happened?

Jon: Throughout the sector, there's been pooling of funds to secure people experiencing homelessness some accommodation in hotels throughout Melbourne. There's also food networks to ensure food security throughout the community. When restrictions prevented people from coming together at St Mary's House of Welcome, we partnered with other organisations to get meals out to the community and ensure some food security.

There have been initial talks coming out of COVID on how local services can share ideas and resources on responding to need, and plan when it’s really difficult to plan. Though we don't know what the future looks like, planning and collaborating will help us maximise our impact in our shared community, in a way that fits with our organisational mission and values.

Cal: You touched on the challenge of creating connection, research has shown that loneliness can be as damaging as smoking or other chronic health concerns. What’s your approach to facilitating connections?

Jon: We’re led by our community at St Mary's House of Welcome. We identify from a participant or community member how they want and need to connect. Then it’s about linking them into programs to answer those needs. If it's social inclusion, we’ll organise excursions out of the city with a group of like-minded people, or sporting programs or ways to learn independent living skills. We are as flexible as possible in meeting their needs while providing opportunities for people to connect. People have this natural affinity to connect with each other, we try to provide mechanisms for them to do just that.

We are as flexible as possible in meeting their needs while providing opportunities for people to connect. People have this natural affinity to connect with each other, we try to provide mechanisms for them to do just that.

Cal: One the interesting findings around building social connection is that it’s generally a by-product of some other activity.

Jon: Yes. Exactly. I think people often come for the meals and then will stay for the community.

Cal: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of food and sharing a meal in a community?

Jon: It's almost primal; historically families, communities and tribes have come together to share food and that continues. When I think of having a meal, often the food is less important than the experience of having a meal with family and friends. St Mary's House of Welcome brings people together from different age groups and backgrounds, that wouldn’t have met in other circumstances, to sit down and share a meal. We’ve got six tables in the dining room and we provide three-course meals with full table service. It gives people time and space to talk, it gives that opportunity for social connection.

Cal: So food is clearly a strong factor. Do you see any others emerging through the work that you do?

Jon: Shared interest of any kind makes social connection. We’ve set up sports competitions with other access centres in Melbourne, and that shared interest and competition definitely brings community connection. We see friendships grow as a result of that initial shared interest, and friendship brings value and belonging.

When I think of having a meal, often the food is less important than the experience of having a meal with family and friends. St Mary's House of Welcome brings people together from different age groups and backgrounds, that wouldn’t have met in other circumstances, to sit down and share a meal. We’ve got six tables in the dining room and we provide three-course meals with full table service. It gives people time and space to talk, it gives that opportunity for social connection.

Cal: Essentially with this project we’re looking to understand people’s definition of community. In a work or life context, what does community mean to you?

Jon: Community to me means connection, shared values, compassion and understanding. The more diversity there is within a community, the stronger its voice or outlook. Bringing people together with diverse opinions and experiences definitely strengthens and grows the community. Again, that leads back to St Mary's House of Welcome, our community’s strength is in diversity. Over 60 years people have continued to come in and share their ideas and experience and the community adapts and learns from those shared experiences.

Cal: Compassion seems really important, especially now when the news makes us feel we are quite divided. How do you think we can foster more compassion in our communities?

Jon: People can be quite judgmental towards people experiencing homelessness, mental illness or other health concerns. We need to build a shared understanding that anyone could find themselves here, and people experiencing homelessness or other issues are valued members of the community like everyone else. We need to come together on this, because our community is only as strong as our support for people in need.

Cal: What changes have you noticed—if any—during your 8 years working in homelessness?

Jon: One of the biggest causes of homelessness is simply the unavailability of affordable, secure housing. There’s been an amazing pandemic response in relation to people experiencing homelessness, with 2,200 people funded in crisis accommodation locations across Victoria. St Mary’s House of Welcome have been delivering nutritious meals through our Welcome Relief Program to approximately 700 people in funded crisis accommodation each day to 23 locations throughout Melbourne.

Cal: It's quite heartening to see the response during COVID because it's such an unusual situation. But it makes you think, why can't we do this all the time?

Jon: We’ve heard our community call the pandemic both painful and positive because their income increased and they've got stable accommodation for the first time. The worry is, with restrictions and financial support winding back, people will end up in the same situation.

Those inherent social issues will continue without more investment into safe, affordable accommodation. There’s just not enough public housing, and there are more than 100,000 people on the waitlist. Private rentals continue to increase in value, meaning that over 99% of private rentals advertised in Australia are out of reach for people on Newstart for example.

Again I don't know what post-COVID will look like, but I’m hopeful that the sector and government will come together and formulate a plan for ongoing support. The pandemic has really identified the plight of some people and it feels like there’s an opportunity for growth and creative thinking around support for people experiencing homelessness.

The pandemic has really identified the plight of some people and it feels like there’s an opportunity for growth and creative thinking around support for people experiencing homelessness. 

Cal: What work has to happen in this space to push the needle in the right direction?

Jon: There needs to be more wraparound support for people. Given the current shortage of affordable housing, people often end up at services such as ours when they've been in crisis for a prolonged period. Their trauma is compounded by crisis after crisis, and by the time they secure housing, some have experienced years of trauma. We need to support them not only to get housed but also to work through that sustained and compounded trauma leading to and during their homelessness. They also need post housing support that builds into independent living skills, education, employment and training.

At the moment there’s such limited resources and such high demand across homelessness services, that sometimes people’s only option will be a few weeks funded in a rooming house, and that's the end of it.

Cal: You raised something that's important, and less discussed, which is the impact of trauma. How can we start having more intelligent and compassionate conversations about trauma in those who are most at need?

Jon: From a sector point of view, it's about education and the development of trauma-informed practice care models. It’s about understanding the impacts of trauma, and also how traumas can inform behaviours. Providing comprehensive wraparound support with understanding and patience, and importantly, appropriate support options to refer people into.

It's very difficult to work through trauma in isolation. The sector needs to acknowledge that any form of trauma can prevent people from engaging meaningfully with services, and then design flexible services that can meet clients needs, based on their past and current experiences.

Cal: It's easy to anonymise people in need or people experiencing homelessness. What do you think we can do to educate the public about what’s actually going on?

Jon: It needs to start early. We have a responsibility to educate young people on the impacts of homelessness and trauma, because often, they don't know until they’re experiencing it. But having those conversations, and uncovering the prejudices toward people experiencing mental illness or homelessness, will help.

Because we’re all people underneath it all. Homelessness isn't a choice. Mental illness isn't a choice. Trauma isn't a choice. I feel if education and conversation started earlier, we’d reduce that stigma and prejudice, and people would be more likely to reach out when they're experiencing these issues.

Because we’re all people underneath it all. Homelessness isn't a choice. Mental illness isn't a choice. Trauma isn't a choice. I feel if education and conversation started earlier, we’d reduce that stigma and prejudice, and people would be more likely to reach out when they're experiencing these issues.

Cal: A theme that came up in a few other conversations about community, is the role of shared stories. Does that resonate with you at all?

Jon: Definitely, that’s really important. I know that through different types of community services, especially in relation to trauma about shared stories. Working through that trauma could involve sharing your personal narrative with a small group of people who have had similar experiences. There have been discussions around forming creative writing groups for people to share their story or a story in general. There's definitely a value in the shared experience, participant-driven support and service design.

Cal: To close it out, if people want to get involved in building a more compassionate and supportive community, what kind of advice would you give them?

Jon: Just reach out to an established organisation and try to identify needs that aren't being met. The perfect example is the first laundry service for the homeless population, it started with two people identifying a need, and now it's gone Australia wide and there’s been talk about going international as well. But start the conversation, talk to your established networks about the change you feel passion for. Try to pull resources, pull ideas, speak to people that are experiencing issues you're trying to help with. Then link up with established organisations and ask, "Hey, can I help?" Start those conversations, ask questions.

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