Coast Shelter marks Homelessness Week during lockdown

Coast Shelter CEO, Michael Starr, with some of the goods donated by Eastcoast Beverages

Marking Homelessness Week (August 1-7) in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown was always going to be a challenge, but Coast Shelter was ready for it.

CEO Michael Starr said the charity, which provides accommodation, meal services and support for the homeless, those at risk of homelessness and the disadvantaged, had had a “pretty good dress rehearsal” during last year’s tight restrictions.

“When the latest lockdown kicked off on June 26 we already had service and business continuity plans ready to go,” Starr said.

“We had COVID-safe plans in place for our community centre and refuges; we were good as far as that was concerned.

“And our accommodation services have remained open during the lockdown.

“QR coding and every piece of public health advice available has been implemented.

“We have up to 170 people every day living in our refuges from the north to the south of the region.”

Immediate changes had to be introduced at the community centre in Gosford the day the lockdown was announced.

“We contacted all the volunteers who work in food preparation and cooking and by the Sunday afternoon they had all been advised we had to stand them down for public health reasons,” Starr said.

“By the Monday we were serving only take away meals for lunch and dinner, completely contactless food service.

“We didn’t miss a beat.”

Starr said local organisations and food companies had rushed to assist.

“Russell Cooper from Gosford RSL pledged to provide 100 meals each day during lockdown for us to distribute, and other companies, including Eastcoast Beverages and Sanitarium donated huge amounts of food so we could keep things going,” he said.

“Seeing that level of support was one of the positives to come out of this situation.”

“We are still serving on average about 90 meals for lunch and dinner every day.”

Starr said another positive to come out of the lockdown was the government provision of temporary accommodation for rough sleepers during lockdown.

“We have managed to get 12 rough sleepers, those who sleep under bridges, in parks and under stairwells, into the government’s temporary accommodation initiative during lockdown,” he said.

“It’s been a good outcome because they are not moving around unnecessarily and are being regularly tested.

“We have also been trying to get some of them to be vaccinated.

“Estimates are that there are around 100 people seeping rough on the Coast each night, so to get 12 of them into accommodation was a good step.

“We can’t do full services for them, but we can drop food off, make sure they have what they need and supply them with vaccination information

“Some contact is better than nothing.”

Starr said the hope was to eventually get those people into permanent housing.

“We have been working with Pacific link on the Together Home initiative, specifically designed to get people off the street,” he said.

“Pacific Link provides the housing and we do the personal servicing.”

Starr said he hoped those in temporary accommodation could be triaged into permanent housing through the scheme.

“If we can change mindsets while they are with us we can do a lot more once lockdown finishes to help maintain a roof over their heads,” he said.

“We can also connect them with mental health services, drug and alcohol services, even training and employment opportunities.”

The scheme isn’t just for rough sleepers; it includes young people and anyone who is considered homeless.

“Some people are living in their cars or couch surfing,” Starr said.

“Prior to lockdown we had already settled 10 rough sleepers into housing.

“The numbers of rough sleepers aren’t huge so getting that number of people out of that lifestyle has a huge impact.”

Starr said the organisation was coming up with creative ways to keep people in refuges in a good frame of mind.”

He said response to the Coast Shelter Sleepout, planned now for September 10, has been amazing, with 62 individuals and 20 corporate teams already registered and fundraising.

“We have raised almost $69,000 so far,” he said.

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Terry Collins