Thursday, March 5, 2009

Australian archbishop takes in the homeless

As much as I like to report when Catholic politicians do the right thing, it gives me even greater joy when I can report on members of the Catholic Church hierarchy who are "walking the walk" instead of just "talking the talk". If all of our bishops were like Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, Australia, we might not have so many disaffected Catholics because they would see their leaders living the faith they profess.

Father’s house a haven for the homeless
By Dawn Gibson
The West Australian
28th February, 2009

For Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey, the plight of Perth’s homeless is literally on his doorstep.

Every evening, a constant stream of people who have nowhere else to go turn up at his modest home in the heart of the city, just across the road from St Mary’s Cathedral, in search of a place to kip.

The Eucharist urges us to look beyond our own spiritual nourishment to the plight of people who are in need. Christians, strengthened by the Eucharist, need to be in the front line in serving the poor, the homeless, the addicts, the persecuted and the rejected people of the world...They are not simply to be the objects of charity but are to be offered the joys of knowing Christ and finding him in our Christian communities where no one will be hungry or rejected. This must be our response to Christ's call that all be one. -- Archbishop B. J. Hickey

The man they call “Father” usually gives them a sandwich or a few dollars before they bed down at the back of his house, safe in the knowledge it is one of few places where police cannot move them on.

Two young men were the first arrivals on the night The West Australian visited. Gavin, a man in his 20s with a solvent sniffing habit, said he had been living on the streets since he was 16. “I had a nice girlfriend then,” he said. “My kids are in welfare and I have got to get them out. I need to go to detox.”

Anna, who arrived with her boyfriend about an hour later, was even more desperate. She is pregnant with her fifth child, a baby likely to be taken from her at birth. She raised her youngest daughter on the streets until child welfare authorities intervened and her other children were scattered around the State. Her eldest son is in prison.

She said she was on the priority list for public housing but faced a wait of about a year.

Archbishop Hickey said Anna and Gavin were typical of his nocturnal visitors, most of whom were Aboriginal. While he tried to help them in practical ways, he felt frustrated that his efforts could make no difference to their long-term rehabilitation.

While he acknowledged there was no quick fix to the problem, there was an urgent need for emergency short-term accommodation and after-hours support services in the city. He also believed there should be a rehabilitation centre specifically for indigenous people and a “mothercraft” or parenting service.

“Housing is not the top priority for the chronically homeless,” he said. “For people who are addicts, who have mental health problems, whose lives are a mess, there is a need for a lot more help before they can manage a house.”

And from the Perth diocesan newspaper, The Record, 2/11/2009:

Hickey launches resource for homeless

By Anthony Barich

His house in Victoria Square in Perth’s central business district, across the road from St Mary’s Cathedral, is just next to the central operational hub of the Catholic Church locally.

But around 9pm, it changes. Many of the homeless – mostly Aboriginal – who have hung around sheltering in various spots around the city during the day, gather at the Archbishop’s front patio for somewhere to sleep.

They call him “Father Hickey”. They love him. But he knows he can’t do much except be their friend and give them a private property to sleep on.

“I’m not a social welfare agency, but they’ve got nowhere else to go,” he says.

Over the many years that the Archbishop has resided there, it has become a home for many - likely hundreds - of displaced people. Some – like one young woman last week - arrive with their blankets in tow and announce ‘I’m staying here tonight’.

Some sleep on his front porch, some he takes around to the secure back area, but they need to clear out in the morning as Catholic Church employees come and park their cars there.

If it were an open space, the police would most likely move them on. But as it is private property, it is a haven from officialdom and the elements.

And the Archbishop often finds himself interceding on their behalf.

Sometimes they cause a ruckus, as they are usually high on “the sniff” (glue), as the Archbishop calls it, drugs, or their senses have been deadened by alcohol. These elements keep them homeless, in some cases mentally disadvantaged, which prevents them from finding work and accommodation to escape their plight.

This is what keeps the Archbishop awake at night. He doesn’t mind. He sees Christ in them and does what he can. He’s completed a Masters in Social Work from the University of WA, and many times he has attempted to negotiate with local councils and the State government to do more for their accommodation needs.

Catholic Church agencies like Shopfront, staffed by up to 80 volunteers, have been nothing less than a God-send, offering assistance, friendship, support and referrals to the marginalised since 2001.

Shopfront recently has put on ‘night-owl’ staff to organise emergency accommodation for those who arrive at their doorstep wanting somewhere to sleep. At the moment, Shopfront usually refers them to places like 55 Central Avenue in Maylands or St Bartholomew’s House in East Perth. But they have limited beds and demand far exceeds supply.

On February 6 at Queen of Martyrs parish hall in Maylands, the Archbishop launched a ‘basic resource’ for inner-city Perth where the homeless and marginalsed can go for a bed, meal, doctor and a shower.

This resource, which includes contacts for day support, detox centres, accommodation and crisis helplines, was a joint initiative between Julie Williams, Shopfront manager, and Chris Harkness, who as part of his studies for a Self Expression Leadership Program, needed a community project to work on. The resultant resource was part of an exercise to “bring people together in the spirit of friendship”.

It was at this launch where the Archbishop revealed his sleeping issues, and was visibly moved when recounting the plight of the homeless who seek him out at night.

Most of them are young Aboriginal women, some are escaping defacto relationships or men who ‘seek sexual favours’. But he wants more to be done. As he scanned the brochure at the launch, he said he knows of many other agencies – Christian and secular alike – who should be on this list. It will be updated. But his biggest concern is emergency accommodation. That is, people rock up and need accommodation.

Now. There just doesn’t seem to be a major source for it at the moment, he says. So Julie Williams, on behalf of the Archdiocese, is working with the City of Perth to establish a one stop shop, where the homeless can find a bed, meal, doctor and a shower, and refer them to somewhere where rehabilitation can be found.

“I’m not very good at rehabilitation of people,” the Archbishop revealed at the launch at Queen of Martyrs. “But I am their friend not matter what happens, and that seems to matter to them, especially the women who are frightened.

“They are so young, yet appear to be simply going nowhere. We need more accommodation for the ‘chronically homeless’. That is priority number one.”

The ‘chronically homeless’, he says, is something which ‘the studies’ that keep coming out on homelessness by private and government agencies always seem to neglect. These people are ‘at the bottom’ of the list, under the influence of one or more of a range of things, and are too often put in the ‘too hard’ basket.

“We must befriend them, love them, help them, respect, them. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said at the launch.

Christian Brother Peter Negus, who works at Shopfront, says the agency paid for accommodation for 160 people this year so far already, and had 8170 come through their doors seeking help in 2008. He expects 10,000 minimum this year, as over 2000 have already sought help from Shopfront so far in 2009.

Photo: Archbishop Hickey with guests

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