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Parishes as Centres of Service
Sandhurst parishioners tackle homelessness

Sixty-five people from parishes across the Diocese of Sandhurst gathered at St Brendan’s parish centre in Shepparton to discuss and share ideas about what could be done to alleviate homelessness in the region. The forum, auspiced by CatholicCare Sandhurst, Catholic Social Services Victoria, and the diocese of Sandhurst, resulted in each participating parish adopting a plan to deepen their contribution to addressing homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing.
Sandhurst’s vicar general, Fr Rom Hayes, commenced the forum with the story of the Good Samaritan and drew a parallel between the story and people who find themselves homeless; and Ms Kerry Stone, chair of the Diocesan Social Justice Committee led us through the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2018-19 A Place to Call Home – Making a home for everyone in our land. This was followed by a broad overview by Claire-Anne Willis of Catholic Social Services Victoria of housing and homelessness in Australia and Victoria where participants learned that there are over 24,817 Victorians who experience homelessness.
The focus then shifted to homelessness and housing need across the Sandhurst diocese. Rhonda Lawson-Street, CEO of CatholicCare Sandhurst presented the findings of a recent housing and homelessness survey distributed to all diocesan parishes. Fifty-four per cent of respondents stated that their parishes have an active response to homelessness and a substantial number were aware of church owned land that if suitable, could be used to develop social housing. A significant number of responses came from St Vincent de Paul Society members. The responses also identified the need for advocacy at various levels and called for support to help parishes build their awareness and capacity to take action on this issue in their local area. The Homelessness Heat Map by the Council to Homeless Persons shows that there are more than 1420 people across northern Victoria who were experiencing homelessness on census night in 2016.
Mr Aaron Golhooly, a staff member from The Cottage, shared his experience of homelessness, highlighting the connection between homelessness and drug addiction.  Participants then heard about two examples of parish initiatives:  plans for a development of social housing currently underway at the Mooroopna parish and about the Bendigo Winter Night Shelter program, where each night beds are being provided for up to ten people. 230 volunteers across seven churches take turns to provide guests’ a welcome, food and shelter for the night.  
The national president of Australian Young Christian Workers, Elizabeth McFarlane, assisted in facilitating the event using the See, Judge Action process, encouraging participants to reflect on what they could do as individuals and as a parish in their local areas. She facilitated a session for participants in parish groups to discuss actions and then presented their plan in the final plenary session. The result was a range of rich and diverse responses which included the following:
  • Create more social opportunities - develop actions to become a more welcoming parish community where there are social opportunities
  • Help more people to become involved - establish a volunteer co-ordinator role that helps and encourages people in the parish to become more involved in activities
  • Increase awareness within the parish to prompt further discussion and action - provide feedback from this forum to the local parish council to raise awareness and explore what action could be taken
  • Build relationships and links between the parish and the parish school
  • Food baskets - Increase awareness of homelessness in the parish by committing to having a food basket donation event, four times a year
  • Winter night shelter for Shepparton - Develop a Winter night shelter program in collaboration with other churches across Shepparton to start next winter.
Denis Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Victoria reflected on the day and said that responses to housing stress and homelessness need to emerge from individuals, community groups and Government. “There are wonderful examples of activity in each of these spheres, but there is also much more that can be done,” Denis said. “One of the benefits of a day like this one is that we can learn from others in roles similar to our own about what has worked for them.” 
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2018-19 A Place to Call Home – Making a home for everyone in our land calls us all to action. The Forum challenged all attending and the whole Church to do what we can to end homelessness in our local communities.  Further information and ideas about action on homelessness and housing can be found through the Parishes as Centres of Service section of the Catholic Social Services Victoria website.
Enquiries: Denis Fitzgerald, Catholic Social Services Victoria. Email denis.fitzgerald@css.org.au, Mobile 0418 136 372
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