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Feeding the homeless through COVID-19: Q&A with Vinnies

While most of us are staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some have nowhere to go. Organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) provide support services for people facing disadvantage.

Even throughout the crisis, the Vinnies Night Patrol vans continue to give food to people experiencing homelessness. As worries rise, more become jobless and others are troubled with income insecurity,these services are crucial.

To get an understanding of how this service is coping through the challenges, I spoke to Director of Special Works, Erin MacArthur and volunteer Team Leader of Night Patrol, Nat Wright.

Headshot of the Director of Special Works at the St Vincent de Paul Society
Erin MacArthur

Q: How do you think the services that Vinnies provides benefits those who receive them?

Erin: The St Vincent de Paul society offers a number of programs regarding homelessness, social inclusion and community engagement. I would firmly believe that the mission and vision of the society is to provide a hand up to people who are experiencing disadvantage, and to really break the cycle of poverty in our community.

It’s my hope and experience that all of our services actually add benefit to people; to empower them to achieve what they would like to achieve, support them through their journey and gain the level of success in their goals that they’ve set for themselves.

Nat: I think when we talk about the provision of services, often our mind can go towards material aid. I think one of the most valuable part of the provision of services is actually the volunteers and the employees themselves. They’re so dedicated and passionate about the work that they do, and understand the impact of that human connection. Building the relationships. That is very well received by the people that we speak to – our companions, because they can be really exasperated by loneliness.

Nat Wright

Q: Do you think that there may be misconceptions about people that are homeless? What do you think these might be?

Nat: Misconceptions that might be shared by some of our community is that people want to be in the cycle. That they chose to be in the cycle, the position they’re in. We all face challenges in our day. There is definitely a unique set of challenges when you’re stuck in a cycle that you were placed into from a very young age and every point in turn in your life, you know, when you’re trying to achieve milestones, and and you’re up against challenges. It’s very hard to pull yourself out of a cycle.

It’s a lot bigger than just receiving material aid and off you go. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done with the persons/individual for them to feel really valid and valued within themselves before they’re able to step out and be that contributing member of society. I don’t think people perhaps realise how hard it is. I can only speak from my position as a volunteer and I see the challenges, but I don’t truly know or understand the challenges that these people face on a day to day basis. Then, of course, you throw poor mental health into the mix as well.

It’s a huge mountain to climb.

Erin: I think so often, we hear the word “vulnerable people” in our community. I suppose what makes them vulnerable is a lot of the complexities around systematic supports behind them. The people that we have the blessing to support are actually very strong and resilient people. With the average person now having to face some of the challenges that people that we support are experiencing they too, may be have a hard time to maintain that resilience to keep going against the crisis or the difficult circumstances. We absolutely believe that the people we support have great strength, but the vulnerabilities behind them are the lack of basic human rights; to housing, to food provisions, to feel that sense of dignity and connection to community. We’re very mindful when dealing with the people that we have had the opportunity to connect with.

Q: Since the pandemic, how have the services changed?

Nat: I can speak specifically to the service Night Patrol. We are still operating seven nights a week, with adjustments made. Firstly, social distancing is encouraged. On arriving to a spot that we are serving our companions, we talk to the companions about maintaining social distancing for their safety as well as our safety as volunteers. First thing we do is we set up some bollards. Having the bollards up as a barricade has been a real adjustment and initially was quite a shock to our companions. We also have shorter stops. Instead of arriving at a venue and spend half an hour, forty minutes there and leave when we feel it’s the time we now are limited to a fifteen minute timeframe. By the time you set up your bollards for the barricading the back of the van and then you know quickly serving individuals. They have to approach one by one to get to their items. It’s more like a grab your items and please step away so that another person can come forward. Fifteen minutes goes very quickly and so instead of being a service that provides a conversation and building those relationships, we’re working more like a please grab your material aid and then have that social distance. which has been really difficult. Another change we’ve made is that there are masks that volunteers are able to wear, these are optional.

Nat (left) alongside other Night Patrol volunteers

The donations that we’re receiving have come in a lot slower. Due to the pandemic, they also need to go through a quarantining process. That is becoming a little bit stressful as we move into the winter months.

Also, the concern is we have a lot of companions who are elderly. And we were often there every week, checking on their wellbeing and their mental health. Now they’re obviously self-isolating if they have a home, and we have not seen them. We’re hoping and praying that they’re safe. Perhaps they have reached out to neighbours but we’re really not sure. And I guess the other challenge is we’re asking people [that are homelessness] to self isolate. A lot of the people that are coming to the van, their anxiety may be heightened because they don’t have any way to self-isolate. They want to stay talk, but we’re not able to offer that as part of our service at the moment.

As a volunteer looking at this, it’s really difficult because you do want to stay and have that conversation and not from a two meter distance, either. It’s really tricky.

Erin: We’re very  fortunate in the ACT that the government’s advised that currently we don’t have any active cases. For The Society, we want to ensure that we’re not complacent in that statistic, because globally, we can see that COVID has had a major impact on the safety of members of our community. The Society is really checking daily and being advised by government bodies in order to make sure that we’re able to stay out in the community and provide the services to people that are in need, while ensuring that our people are safe. Mainly, that’s people we support: our wonderful volunteers who do such a great job of staying out in the community and supporting people, as well as our members and our staff.

The most important thing for us right now is to make sure our services are on the ground as long as possible in a safe way to make sure that the community knows that Vinnies is still there for them.

And to make sure that they have the hope at the end of this virus, that we will still rejuvenate and be able to provide the quality support and human connection.

Q: How have your companions responded to the changes made due to the virus?

Nat: I feel that our companions have been so respectful of these changes. Although it was a shock. They know that if everyone does the right thing, we can continue to run as a service and be there for them. Which is so important considering how many of our partnership services have been unable to continue operating. We need to continue standing for our companions. And so although those bollards are up and we are unable to be engaging in that deep conversation our companions have very respectful of why these changes have occurred. And they are following directions on how to now use the service in a different way.

Q:  How have the services adjusted to the decrease in resources?

Nat: In regards to night patrol adapting, the main change is the volunteers. Now our Night Patrol teams go out with two volunteers as opposed to normally having three to four. Many of our volunteers came to volunteering after their retirement and so, many fall into a vulnerable age group. We are really relying on the volunteers who are under 65 years old and are not carers. Those that are able to have taken up multiple shifts, helping out with extra nights to fill the gaps.

Night Patrol van when it was operating with four volunteers

Erin: The pandemic has really impacted the community as a whole. The Society relies heavily on the generosity of our community; with donations, fundraising, sponsorships, as well as the people power that goes into running our services through our volunteer membership. We’ve really asked people to prioritize their own safety and ensure that they are looking out for themselves and their families. As a result, we’ve had a few people opt-out regarding volunteering. Our sponsorship and fundraising has had a reduction as there’s been an economic impact [from the virus] on the community as well as businesses. The marketing team is really making sure that we’ve still got an active web page so people can donate in a different way. We always find that the Canberra community is so generous. So even though we might have a decrease in those funding, people are still reaching out to us and ensuring that we have the food provisions and the financial provisions in order to to continue on with our service.

For us, it’s very important [that people continue to donate] because a lot of the revenue that we receive will go back into supporting people and businesses that have also been affected by COVID. We really want to make sure that The Society is well supported through this so that we can then give back to the community both for the general services that we provide.

Q: What impact do you think the pandemic has had on the community, particularly in relation to those facing disadvantage?

Erin: I suppose one of the major impacts regarding how the pandemic has changed perception would be how people view vulnerable people in our community. The pandemic has really highlighted the fact that we need to make some clear changes into safe and affordable housing, and access to food provisions for people experiencing homelessness. It also shines a light on the fact that when people are vulnerable, these types of incidents – pandemics or anything that we cannot control – really heightens the fact that these individuals are in great need of additional support.

I would like to highlight that we have a very supportive government who has provided a lot of stimulus packages and extra funding in order to provide accommodation: crisis, short term and transitional. The response from government and community- based organisations has been outstanding.

Back of Night Patrol van with a queue
Night Patrol vans operate seven nights weekly in various locations around Canberra, offering food to those in need

Q: How can people support Vinnies at this time?

Erin: If anyone wants to become involved or to support the society in any capacity to please visit our website. We’ve got our CEO sleepout that despite all odds, will go ahead. All of this really is meaningful to ensure that we can continue those services that we provide to make sure that we’re able to support people in our community that are facing some very crucial disadvantage at this time. Also, we’re always very grateful for all of the people who put their hand up to power the services through.

If you would like to support the services that the St Vincent de Paul society facilitates, please visit their website. You can donate towards the COVID-19 Winter Appeal, or for general fundraising and support upcoming events. The ACT Contact Number is (02) 6282 2722.

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