Seven churches that have been taking turns to provide the homeless with free overnight shelter through the winter have been told to close by the local Yarra Ranges Council in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs.
The Stable One volunteer group has run its Winter Shelter program with seven churches of various denominations in the Yarra Valley for the past three years. Initially it had the support of the local council as well as local communities, police and housing support agencies.
But it’s had to close one week early this year because a group of municipal building surveyors from the Victorian Building Authority advised the council that the churches must upgrade their amenities to qualify for a new occupancy permit that would change the use of their buildings to include “accommodation”.
“Though guests are given the opportunity to sleep on a camp bed, it is not a kind of private lodging – they don’t have their own space.” – Jenny Willetts
Stable One founder and managing director Jenny Willetts said that, under the ruling, the churches must obtain Class 3 permits, which were akin to a boarding house. But, she said, the churches could not afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to draw up new plans and conduct renovations on smoke alarm systems, fire separation walls and showers and so on. Nor did they see the need to do so.
Jenny said the legislation was ambiguous but was designed to protect the homeless from shonky boarding houses. She argued the churches were not providing “accommodation” as such but a temporary place of shelter. She says churches do not want to be accommodation providers but simply to provide people who would otherwise sleep rough with a protection from the coldest months of the year.
“Though guests are given the opportunity to sleep on a camp bed, it is not a kind of private lodging – they don’t have their own space.”
She said fire alarms were not needed because volunteers remained awake overnight to ensure the safety of everyone. “Policies and procedures around admissions and health and safety do everything that is fair and reasonable to mitigate risk.”
Under the scheme – which was designed on an overseas model – the seven churches take turns to offer hospitality to overnight “guests” one night of the week through the winter, equating to 13 nights in total for each church.
“We have a trailer; all the bedding goes in the trailer and each day it moves from church to church. The church provides a meal in the evening, they set up all the camp beds, usually in the sanctuary or in a big room, and guests can sleep dormitory style and we have a breakfast in the morning and then they leave,” Jenny says.
“As an organisation, we recruit and train volunteers from within those churches and other churches and from within the community, so on average we have about 200 volunteers a year. We employed this year a project coordinator and a deputy coordinator to oversee the project. We assess guests as to suitability – we’ve got criteria around that, like managing their mental health, they’re not allowed to be intoxicated, they have to be 25 and over, but we take men and women.”
Jenny says 40 people have used the service this winter – more than last year or the year before, in a sign of the increasing homelessness problem in the area. Every night in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, known for their wineries and rail trails, more than 300 people are considered homeless of whom about 7 per cent are sleeping rough outdoors.
Thankfully, since this week’s closure, a local Christian campsite has stepped in to offer free accommodation until Monday as has a wedding reception venue with spare rooms.
“We were going to finish next Friday anyway – we finish at the end of August. We just go through the winter, but we didn’t quite get to the end this year.”
Jenny scoffed at a newspaper report quoting the state Planning Minister Richard Wynne as saying he had asked the VBA and his department to work with Stable One and the council towards a solution “because we need to make sure that the places people sleep are safe.”
“The Planning Minister hasn’t spoken to us. I’ve written to Richard Wynne last November to sort this out and we really came to a stalemate, so in the end our churches decided that they would go ahead anyway, even though we were not complying with what the council wanted because it was unachievable.”
“What we’ve done is provide a really practical way for churches to do something to help people who’ve got nowhere else to go.” – Jenny Willetts
She said the building regulations were aimed at ensuring boarding houses were safe, and not intended to enforce a change in the use of church buildings. The limited scope, scale and duration of the program (13 nights of 365 in each church) precluded any inconsistency between the use of the church and its classification as an “assembly building”.
Jenny argues it is a question of religious freedom – it is the heart of the gospel to reach out to the poor and “what we’ve done is provide a really practical way for churches to do something to help people who’ve got nowhere else to go.
“It’s so good for the church on so many levels because we’re working together across denominations. Even the other day with this crisis they’re all sat in a room together saying ‘OK’ what are we going to do now?’ and it’s another beautiful example of our unity and that is phenomenal.”
Jenny says people from across Australia are contacting her wanting to replicate the Winter Shelter model, so some good may come from this crisis.
“We’ve now put together the model in a format where you can license it to people to use our policies and our training and our manual. We’ve had a call today from someone in NSW – ‘how can we do this?’ So it will help spread it. I think God knows what’s going on. I’m not worried.”