Mercy Health’s Homeless Outreach Program opens the door to hope and healing for those with nowhere else to turn.
Cara is a warm and welcoming host. “Usually it’s a bit more spic and span than this,” she says shyly as she opens the door to her home. Inside it’s no messier than the average house — miraculous given the tiny space — and made cosy with curtains she has sewn herself.
Yet it’s hard to ignore the gaffer tape lacing the roof and the pervasive smell of damp. Cara’s home is a 1970s era caravan in the Half Moon Caravan Park in Melbourne’s Brooklyn. The park provides cheap accommodation to an ever-shifting population of people with few other options. Cara has just left a community forum inside the park’s ageing communal building where she regularly catches up with case worker Kade Mollison, from Mercy Health’s Homeless Outreach Program. “I can’t believe you consider me homeless!” Cara half-jokes with Kade. But they both know that for now, this is Cara’s reality.
“Cara is quite vulnerable,” Kade explains. “This isn’t the ideal environment for someone dealing with significant mental illness.
Despite claiming she would only stay a month, she’s now been living here for 18 months. While a lot of work has gone into the park over the years to improve residents’ access to services, the population base means it can be quite unstable and unsafe.”
Kade is well placed to gauge the caravan park’s viability as a home for Cara and the many other clients he meets with there. His work brings him to the park every two weeks. Each visit is a chance to connect with people who desperately need psychiatric and practical support, but have trouble accessing services through fear, disability or their itinerant lifestyle.
The outreach program translates the Sisters of Mercy’s earliest work in caring for their community’s homeless into a groundbreaking new model that allows the Clinic’s three teams, Maribyrnong, Hobson’s Bay and Wyndham, to work across geographical boundaries. This approach provides the continuity and stability sadly lacking in their clients’ lives.
“We all work together, as homeless or itinerant clients tend to move between areas a lot,” confirms Amy Veitch from the Maribynong
team. “So a client might be living in Hobson’s Bay but we’ll manage them in my area if they move, to continue the care and rapport we’ve built with them.”
“Our clients can be difficult to find again if they’re living on the streets or in squats,” explains Nicole Withers, manager of the program.
“Our approach maximises their potential for stability and optimal mental health.”
Reaching those life changing goals demands exceptional interpersonal skills, not only to build clients’ trust but to forge much-needed links with other health and welfare providers.
“Holistic care is a focus for all our case-managed clients,” says Nicole. “They face many challenges: if you’re itinerant how do you get a usual GP? Are you going to go and get your blood tests? Do you have the space to shower so you can do that?”
Amy, Kade and the team are building both kinds of relationships through the fortnightly community forum at the Half Moon Caravan
Park and a monthly barbecue held in Footscray. Each gathering brings together residents, outreach workers and other agencies including CoHealth, the Salvation Army, Isis Health and Centrelink to offer easy access to holistic support.
Amy and Kade both see the value of this approach. “CoHealth has a homeless housing program and they usually attend the Footscray barbecue along with Healthworks, a drug and alcohol support and needle exchange program. So that addresses some of the day to day issues our clients face,” Amy notes. “There’s also a GP, nurses, a van where clients can have blood tests in private and receive money or food as an incentive to keep on top of their physical health.
Other services monitor mental and sexual health and Hepatitis C. The facility has showers and a laundry, so it’s a really good resource for our clients.
“It’s also created a great camaraderie between the clients who regularly attend. They get to know each other and look out for each other. That also encourages them to engage more readily with us, if one sees another receiving our support.”
The outreach program extends to visiting boarding houses — another refuge for those in housing crisis. “We team up in pairs, usually a mental health worker and a support worker and go out to engage residents who might not know where to go to get help,” says Amy. “At
times we find people who are acutely unwell and refer them to a support service or into hospital if they need it.”
As occupational therapists by training, Amy and Kade both understand making small, sustainable changes is the path to improving health. Success comes in tiny victories: a blood test taken, a GP appointment attended, a poor life choice avoided. “I managed to convince Cara to get regular injections of antipsychotic medication,” Kade says. “She’s definitely more stable than when we first met.
But she still needs support. So my work with her centres on finding strategies she can use to keep herself on track.”
Kade is trying to talk Cara out of signing up for an internet service she cannot afford.
“But I’m studying, I need it to do my research!” Cara explains. Kade quietly suggests she transfers her work onto a memory stick instead to save money. Cara is falling behind but seems determined to complete her course. “The course coordinator says I’m their best student,” she says sceptically, but there’s no hiding her pride.
It’s a small step towards change but Kade is under no illusion that it will come easily.
“So when are you thinking of moving out of here?” he nudges Cara. She smiles but then shrugs. “I need human contact,” she says simply.
*Cara’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Amy Veitch from the Homeless Outreach Program