Creating opportunities for engagement

Chris Middendorp, Manager Sacred Heart Central
Chris Middendorp Manager Sacred Heart Central
5 October 2022
Chris Middendorp, Manager Sacred Heart Central

In Melbourne many people know our service in St Kilda simply as the Mission’s Meals Program or the Dining Hall. We are open seven days a week, every day of the year and feed people, using an approach of unconditional positive regard. Occasionally people refer to us as a ‘soup kitchen’, a pejorative, old-fashioned American term for a ‘drop in’ style service which provides basic food for the disadvantaged in a ‘skid row’ (another outdated term) section of town.

Times have changed and models have been significantly enhanced. We prefer to use the term Engagement Hub to describe our model of service which attempts significantly more than feeding folk.  If we had to crystallise the approach, we would hope that a person might come for lunch and stay on for ongoing support or case management. Although it might take weeks before the former becomes the latter.

In essence, we are a venue where people experiencing homelessness (and are not necessarily help seeking) are made to feel welcome, can access a meal and engage with qualified staff who work to build trust in an environment (and at a pace) they feel comfortable with.

Meals are an engagement tool. We serve around 200-250 three course meals every day and cater for vegetarians. We ensure that the food is of a high standard of nutrition and engage a dietitian every year in a full audit of ingredients and food preparation. Last year we served 159,000 meals. Over 50 percent of our clients are over the age of 50 years. Forty percent are female and there’s a small community of gender diverse people who also attend. Over 15 percent identify as Aboriginal community members.

Above and beyond our meals, the core principle underpinning our work is uncomplicated. Remove as many barriers as possible so a person can come and access support without needing to make an appointment or sit in a waiting room or office. Our key strategy is to be present, provide supportive conversation and build trust over time.

Some people only begin to engage with workers after multiple visits over many weeks. The people who use our service have too often experienced complex trauma and had negative experiences with institutions and the community sector and may have grown up in state care and may have experienced prison life, along with involuntary hospitalizations and treatments.

Our Pathways Support Workers, who are on duty each day, are always on the lookout to see how they might be of assistance, when the time is right. From helping someone to access a doctor or obtain ID and secure an income, to supporting them to get ongoing case management and some permanent and appropriate housing.

In essence, there are three key elements to our Engagement Hub service model.

Two Meals Program volunteers handing out a plate to a client

One: Social Connection

The foundational purpose of our Engagement Hub is to promote and build community. Without this much of the other work would be difficult or impossible. Our approach privileges relationships in a world where so many interactions with others have become transactional. We welcome people, we get to know their names, we honour their stories, we promote calm, hope and safety.

We know that for marginalised people in our community there’s a significant shortage of venues that are welcoming and where they will be heard without judgement. Using a trauma informed lens, we work hard to provide a predictable, safe space where people can feel comfortable enough to tell their stories and ask for support. (We have access to discreet private spaces for confidentiality.)

Two: Harm Minimisation of Homelessness

People attend our service to get nutritious breakfasts and lunches; but they can also access clean clothing, emergency relief, sleeping bags, advice and information. During COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we were able to provide close to 900 vaccinations on site through a partnership with a local community health service. For many people such practical interventions are how they begin to engage with us. It’s not unusual for a request for a pair of clean socks to end up as a social housing application.

Three: An Entry Point to Ongoing Assistance

Through our Pathways Support Workers clients can access case management services, housing waiting lists, along with support to access AoD and mental health services. We have an enduring partnership with Alfred Hospital Psychiatry, which provides enhanced pathways to treatment, along with secondary consultation to hub workers. Increasingly workers are assisting clients with digital literacy, supporting them to access websites for supports such as My Aged Care. Not everyone owns a computer or mobile phone and without assistance many people struggle to access the burgeoning realm of web-based services.

It should not be underestimated how important it is for other community services to be able to locate their clients through our hub. Case managers from all over inner Melbourne visit us to connect with their clients and we are also a focal point for messages and mail. This helps provide people with consistent communication even when they are itinerant.

Our engagements with service users can go in many potential directions – we refer and connect people to longer term support through case management and social housing options via our internal allocations system. There are also wellbeing opportunities, including osteopathy, hearing tests, podiatry, optometry, substance use support groups, yoga and music group. Many of these activities were provided at client requests.

To ensure that people remain housed, we use a sustaining tenancies framework. Workers are attentive to any client feedback about arising tenancy issues – problems with neighbours, maintenance issues, rent arrears – and work swiftly to ensure that supports are in place to prevent escalation or potential eviction. Monitoring the health of people’s tenancies is an important part of ensuring people don’t become homeless again.

During the lengthy peak of COVID-19, like countless other services, our sit-down community dining space was closed for a protracted period of over two years. We provided meals as a takeaway service. On the day we reopened this May, a returning client, Ben, a rough sleeper, grabbed himself a coffee and sat in our front garden. ‘I love this place,’ he told workers. ‘I feel like I can breathe and think when I come here.’ Ben has been assisted with housing.

This encapsulates what our project is all about. Our regular client feedback surveys demonstrate that there’s a strong enthusiasm for our approach. Last year some of the qualitative feedback included: ‘You don’t feel alone… you’re a part of something.’ ‘I value the support: people listen, you feed us. It is hard to describe how good it is. It saved my life.’

Effective client work begins with trust and a bonded relationship between the worker and the client. For people who are homeless and/or marginalised – who have experienced trauma and lack trust in ‘the system’ and who often feel isolated from and shunned by the wider community – a place of refuge is an important building block for positive transformation and reconnection with community. Psychiatrist Judith Herman, a leading practitioner in the field of complex trauma, reminds us that, “Recovery can only take place within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” This has certainly been our experience and why we continue to privilege a relationship based approach.


This article was originally sourced from Parity, the publication of the Council to Homeless Persons.