Ready for the Fred’s Place Tweed Heads community sleepout on Thursday 29 August are (l-r) Jessica Peebles, Alysia Hopkins (Fred’s Place coordinator), Megan Claeys (standing), Paula Vermunt and David Holmes.

They call it the “field of dreams” scenario – build it and they will come, and they have been doing just that in Tweed Heads and Coffs Harbour where the St Vincent de Paul Society, a.k.a. Vinnies, has developed weekday drop-in centres offering a range of services to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so

In the border location, where it is the only such centre in a highly populated area, Fred’s Place – named after the Society’s founder, Frederic Ozanam – is now seeing more than one hundred people a day through its doors. While registration is requested, anonymity is respected and no IDs are checked, hence a number of visitors from “Mars’” and clients claiming to be “Superman” and “Mickey Mouse”. Mental health issues are relatively common amongst the homeless population. 

Although personal information is not sought, many people wish to share their experiences, thoughts and problems, often having no real confidants. Staff, volunteers and university students doing practicum placements are always ready to lend an ear.

On the physical level, Fred’s Place offers bathroom and laundry facilities, breakfasts and snacks, medical care (from the Kennedy Drive Medical Centre) and help with accessing government agencies using in-centre IT. 

Down in Coffs Harbour a more recently opened service, Pete’s Place – named after a local who unexpectedly left a bequest for “a good purpose” – the build-it scenario is seeing fifty-plus people a day coming in to use services that help them maintain personal dignity and boost their wellbeing. 

Some have been sleeping rough in improvised outdoor dwellings, a situation known as primary homelessness, others have been living in their cars, couch surfing in already crowded households, or staying in low-cost caravan parks, motels and boarding houses 

Pete’s Place was developed with the additional help of a major infrastructure grant from Council and significant input from local Rotary and Vinnies itself, with the funds coming from regional op shop proceeds. These Vinnies’ services receive no government support, with the Tweed centre running an annual community sleepout to help keep the doors open. 

A third such facility is now under way in Ballina, a town that, to the surprise of many, has the greatest level of homelessness in the Northern Rivers. Statistics from 2016 Census data and on-ground social service workers indicate that the greater Ballina area currently has at least 150 people who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, with some local analysts suggesting the true number may be considerably higher. 

Here, Vinnies has taken a long-term lease on a building known as Harmony House in Moon Street owned by the Catholic Parish, and is refurbishing it into a three-bedroom accommodation facility for single males transitioning back into broader society. The rear of the large corner block is being transformed into a “field of dreams” drop-in centre along the lines of Fred’s and Pete’s Places. 

Harmony House

The self-contained space will host a weekday service where homeless people can hear some kind words, have a much needed breakfast and snacks, wash themselves, get their laundry done, attend scheduled healthcare appointments and be referred to specialist services (including legal, financial and governmental) by qualified staff. 

It will be cost-free for users and include a suitably landscaped backyard with adequate space for outdoor contemplation and appropriate social interaction between clients. 

At present, Ballina has several free food services but nowhere for homeless people to get personal services or have an in-house snack without the fear of physical harassment, or at best, being stigmatised. Rostered medical care will be made available in one of the meeting rooms in the purpose built centre, scheduled to open in early 2020. 

There has been strong support for the project, with Ballina Shire Council and Rous Water assisting with fee relief, Ballina State MP Tamara Smith offering help, service clubs showing keen interest, and the Ballina Shire Advocate and community radio Paradise FM ready to put their media weight behind the concept. 

Keenly aware of the town’s homeless challenge, the station manager of Paradise FM, Jenny Ellenbroek, quipped, “I don’t even want my dog to sleep outside,” adding, “How tragic that a well-off society can’t adequately care for homeless people, particularly at this time of year as the cold weather moves in.” 

For information about supporting the Harmony House drop-in service please contact the writer (who is Vinnies communications manager) on 0409 984 488.