A clean start

Local sporting clubs are opening their doors to let the homeless shower. Kelly Masters reports.

Vicki Hottes was on a road trip to Queensland with the radio on when she heard two people say the hardest part of being homeless was that they couldn’t stay clean.

After wondering what she could do to help, Hottes placed an A4-sized sign outside the entrance of the Lilydale Football Club rooms.

The sign is out between 2pm and 5pm on Tuesday afternoons to inform the public that the club’s showers are open. Inside the rooms are recently renovated showers, clean towels, care bags with toiletries, shampoo – and most importantly a sense of community.

As secretary of the senior Lilydale Football club, Hottes has been opening the club’s doors for people in need on Tuesdays since August last year. She is at the clubrooms every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon doing administrative work anyway, so says it makes sense to her to open the facilities so people who are struggling can come in for a hot shower.

“I am lucky I have got a house and family and people to support me if something goes wrong but obviously with homeless people they may not have that support around them,’’ she says.

Hottes’s action is part of a growing trend. More sports facilities and alternative venues are offering shelter to the 105,000 Australians without somewhere to sleep each night, according to Mission Australia and latest figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Corri McKenzie, the general manager of practice leadership at Mission Australia, says homelessness in Australia is increasing and has been doing so for some time. “It’s not really well understood or really well contextualized,” she says, adding it is a “deeply rooted problem within our society”.

Sporting clubs who already open their doors around Australia or provide similar services are a really good example of where a community organization can think about what kind of tools and resources they have at their disposal and how these can be used to help people in a positive way, she says.

McKenzie says it is a great initiative, but help to find a home should also be provided. “It’s a lovely thing if community organisations and communities are able to and are kind enough to open their hearts, to support people in need; however clubs must ensure that they offer a pathway to safety and security,” she says.

Lisa Stockheim, the manager of housing and support at Anchor – an independent community-based organisation supporting the homeless or those at risk of homelessness in Melbourne’s East, says opening clubrooms is a great idea in theory but there are challenges clubs or community organisations need to think about to keep those who operate and use the service safe.

She says the clubs need to be safe and clean. “People won’t just go and have a shower because they can have a shower.”

Physical safety, financial, emotional and social security are all major concerns for homeless people, McKenzie says. “Being able to have confidence and trust in the relationships and the social connections and people around can be a really challenging consequence of homelessness.”

There is no shortage of people willing to volunteer their time, Stockheim says. “I think there are enough good people in Melbourne who want to help people but it’s how to make that happen,” she says.

While Hottes is the only person at the Lilydale Football club rooms on a Tuesday afternoon, she receives help from other members through promotion and donations. “I might be the one who sits here but there’s lots of support from other people within the club, which is great,” she says.

She encourages more sporting clubs to open their facilities if they are able to, although understands that the issue is finding people from the club who have got the time to do so. “In any sort of organization that’s got a lot of volunteers, most of our volunteers all work in some other kind of job, whether it’s a paid job or they’re a mum or they look after a house. Manpower is the issue but I do think they can do it for sure.”

Any clubs considering opening their facilities are encouraged to engage with existing services and professionals such as Anchor. Stockheim says these services are aware of the challenges around homelessness and can provide advice on deciding how to run the service.

She also says there needs to be discussions in terms of risk management before opening the club doors. “The last thing any sporting service would want is to have a woman or young person come back and say, ‘thanks for the shower, the guy in there just raped me and no one helped me’.”

Despite such concerns, Stockheim says there are lots of benefits to having a hot shower. Personal hygiene improves self-esteem, she says.

“Having a shower will not solve the problem but it will go a long way to maintaining someone’s dignity.

“Someone gets tidied up for a job interview or for an inspection to go into a rooming house to seek accommodation.”

McKenzie says the social connection is also welcomed. “It’s the most important thing we can really offer and is often the thing that is most important in helping people exit homelessness,” she says.

Both McKenzie and Stockheim say clubs should consider how they will sustain the offer, the support and must work with the service sector to build a community safety net.

There are no costs involved with running the service, apart from the electricity and gas to run the heating for the water. “I am sure the football club can afford that,” says Hottes.

“You just need people to give up a couple of hours on an afternoon to man it.”

More information on showering programs can be found at local homelessness support sectors. If you are in crisis and need support please contact lifeline on 13 11 14 or 000 in an emergency.