The Southern Cross : July 2011
Page 12 July 2011 www.thesoutherncross.org.au 50 years supporting SA homeless Fifty years ago a line of homeless men snaked round Whitmore Square, some waiting hours for a warm bed and a meal in Adelaide's only men's night shelter. Since then, the Vincentian Centre has helped keep 50,000 men off Adelaide's streets at night. It's never closed its doors since opening in 1961. Now celebrating its 50th year, Mike Wockel, director of Homeless Persons Accommodation Services for the St Vincent de Paul Society SA, says the queue may have diminished but the number of homeless men remains constant and today they need more than just shelter. "We've become a catchment pool for people with more demanding and complex needs," he says. In the 1960s, the majority of men were middle-aged seeking crisis accommodation following family breakdown. They were often short-term stayers just needing a bed and a meal for one or two nights. Today, says Mr Wockel, the homeless men needing help most are those with mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependencies and problem gamblers caught in the homeless cycle of abuse, poverty and unemployment. "It certainly has changed over the years," says Mr Wockel, 56. He's been heading the men's shelter for the past 15 years and has witnessed many of the changes first hand. The most important of which, he says, was removing the institutionalisation of the homeless and restoring them with dignity, privacy and pride. Initially opened as a 4pm to 8am crisis accommodation service for 25 men, the centre had three dormitories, a common shower block and a staple dinner menu of mashed potatoes and meat pie. Men were given pyjamas to bunker down for the night in hospital beds until the doors re-opened the next day. The centre, run solely by a group of about 30 volunteers and without government funding, was open seven days a week all year round. As demand for the service increased, up to 200 men would start lining up around 3pm vying for 50 beds. Those lucky enough to get a spot were then forced back onto the streets after 8am the next day. This year, the centre has opened its doors 24 hours a day, is run by paid staff and volunteers and provides men with nutritious, balanced meals. Men are able to stay after their breakfast and access a raft of services and resources to address: family/relationship breakdown, drug and/or alcohol addiction, mental health and income support issues, affordable and safe housing, lack of living skills and gambling addiction. "The centre and its amazing group of past and present volunteers have adapted to meet the very, very challenging needs of the men over the years and that is remarkable in itself as many organisations would have just closed up shop -- we never have," says Mr Wockel. The shelter underwent a multi-million dollar refurbishment in 2001 to create single bedrooms and some shared accommodation for 49 homeless men from the age of 18 years. It provides case management, referrals to other organisations and social support. Last year the centre helped 910 men, provided 9821 bed spaces, 6109 dinners and 2102 breakfasts. The Vincentian Centre first opened in May 1961 as a "Special Work" of the St Vincent de Paul Society (SA) Inc State Council and is managed by the Homeless Persons Accommodation Services Committee. It is funded by the SA Department for Families and Communities under the National Affordable Housing Agreement and the St Vincent de Paul Society, as well as corporate and private sponsors. A key fundraiser for the Society, and the Centre, is the CEO Sleepout held at the Adelaide Zoo which this year has so far raised $220,000. St Vincent de Paul Society SA state president Dominic Lagana said the Vincentian Centre was a shining example of the society's mission to live out the Catholic ethos of helping those less fortunate. He said Mr Wockel, volunteers and the centre's Homeless Persons Accommodation Services Committee had worked tirelessly to provide a warm bed, food and an exit point from homelessness for Adelaide's disadvantaged with dignity and respect. "This milestone recognises the amazing work that has been achieved from the shelter's inception 50 years ago to today," said Mr Lagana. He said recent milestones included a reorganisation of management systems to better coordinate programs across the Society and the new Vincentian Alliance. "This shelter lives out the mission of the gospel by serving the poor irrespective of race, colour or creed and that's the reality here and it's a reality that happens day after day on a 24-hour basis all year round." Back in time 1961 -- Adelaide City Councillor Bert Edwards bequests land and original building at 22 Whitmore Square to St Vincent de Paul Society. May 1961 -- St Vincent de Paul Homeless Shelter for men opens for crisis accommodation for 25 men from 4pm to 8am. Demand slowly increases to provide for 50 men over the years. Run by volunteers. 1996 -- 4pm curfew lifted to 11pm. 1998/99 -- introduction of food nutrition project, access to education programs. November 2001 -- shelter temporarily relocates to Waymouth St during renovations at Whitmore Square. Society purchases nearby restaurant on Whitmore Square. January 2002 -- restaurant re-opens after refurbishment to serve first meal. May 2002 -- demolition of shelter at Whitmore Square begins. December 2002 -- Whitmore Square's Vincentian Centre reopens to men in time for Christmas. February 2003 -- official opening of renovated Vincentian Centre. March 2011 -- Centre opens from 18 hours/day to 24 hours/ day. May 2011 -- Vincentian Alliance formed, which joins services between St Vincent de Paul's Society, Hutt Street Centre and the Frederic Ozanam Housing Association. EARLY YEARS: A rare photograph taken in the 1960s of the St Vincent de Paul Society's men's shelter in Whitmore Square. PARTNERS: At the Vincentian Alliance launch (L-R) Frederic Ozanam Housing Association chairman John Lemm, Hutt Street Centre Board chairman Chris Lemmer, Senator Don Farrell, Mgr David Cappo AO and St Vincent de Paul Society SA state president Dominic Lagana. Photo: Denise Player Restoring dignity HOMELESS HERO: Mike Wockel has managed the Vincentian Centre for the past 15 years. Vinnies changes lives every day. Donate now to the Vinnies Winter Appeal. Call 13 18 12 or visit vinnies.org.au Help someone see a better future.