Trying to help my neighbours in Melbourne's tower blocks

Andrew Wong’s church is in the centre of Flemington, one of the Melbourne suburbs at the centre of a coronavirus furore this week.

About 600 metres from St Stephen’s Presbyterian is one of the nine public housing tower blocks locked down on Monday without notice.

“I can only give spiritual and emotional support during this time over the phone.” – Andrew Wong

Daniel Andrews’ government took the drastic measures to combat surging cases of COVID-19 within the towers, likened to “vertical cruise ships” for their potential to spread the disease. But with many residents being from migrant, refugee or low-socioeconomic backgrounds, the swift lockdown of the towers sparked concern and anger amid residents – and onlookers.

Wong is the minister at St Stephen’s which has been helping its local community as part of the Presbyterian and Scot’s Joint Mission – since 1924. This long-standing Flemington Mission (which operates out of St Stephen’s hall) has evolved to provide food parcels, fresh fruit and vegetables, prescription subsidies and financial support for educational needs. But the on-again, off-again, on-again COVID-19 restrictions have cut back those charitable acts.

“Many regulars come from the public housing towers but, unfortunately, with the hard lockdown this week they are unable to come out,” says Wong. “Many of them have called me to ask for groceries but we are unable to give it to them.

“I can only give spiritual and emotional support during this time over the phone.”

As has been widely reported, Wong confirms that his neighbours in the Flemington and North Melbourne apartments are “struggling”, the lockdown is tight, and police presence is high (500 officers per shift, according to Wong). He explains to Eternity what happened when he tried to provide assistance to a regular Mission volunteer who lives in a nearby tower block.

“I tried to drop two food parcels and a bag of fresh fruit and vegetables to her,” says Wong. “But when I went to the door, the police officer pretty much said if I wanted to drop something, I need to bring it to the local community office. He said it needs to get checked but … the reality is even if you drop it through, it probably won’t go to the woman – for health reasons, as well as the possibility of me trying to give her drugs.”

A few groups have been allowed to help those in the shut-off tower blocks, including Red Cross and Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Based on the level of demand for everyday items which he has seen through the coronavirus pandemic, Wong’s biggest concern about the tower blocks being locked down is whether all those in need can be reached.

“We’ve actually seen an increase of new faces popping into the Mission,” says Wong about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. “We’ve seen a lot of new faces because more people are struggling, more people are in need. And, so, we need to provide more.”

“We can all pray that God would protect people, keep them safe, that those who are infected would recover well.” – Andrew Wong

Wong also has noticed how, before this week’s tight lockdown, more people would stop to talk with him and Flemington Mission volunteers as they sought connection during these self-isolating times.

“I’ve actually had the opportunity to spend more time talking to every single person because, you know, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, people would just come in; it’d be quite quick … Because we want to be ‘double safe’, we have only been letting people go in one at a time. I was able to have long conversations, week by week, outside.”

“So, you know, it’s unfortunate that now, some of the people are locked in public housing and I’m not able to have that long conversation with them – to talk about how they’ve been going, what they’ve been struggling with, how can we help in other ways?”

Regularly seeing between 20 and 30 tower-block residents at Flemington Mission’s weekly chapel service, Wong makes it clear that his hope for helping his local area flows from a desire for all to meet the saving figure he serves.

“One of the benefits of seeing people, physically, is I am able to get to know them better and, by God’s grace, minister to them about their greatest need – Jesus Christ who saves them from their sins,” shares Wong.

“We can all pray that God would protect people, keep them safe, that those who are infected would recover well … But most importantly, [my] biggest prayer for everyone who comes to Flemington Mission is they would find the greatest satisfaction with Jesus Christ.

“So we can pray that God would open people’s eyes during this time and they’d see the need for Jesus.”

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