I have been working in the city with The Salvation Army for the past 20 years. It is amazing to think that what we successfully trialled and tested 20 years ago is exactly what is required today.
I’ll never forget going out on our nightly outreach van to a location, ironically called Salvation Lane, in East Melbourne.
There was a man in his 30s by the name of John (not his real name).
We visited him for three months without a single engagement from John.
Our visits ended up amounting to nothing more than checking that John was still alive.
Then, amazingly, after asking John if he would like a coffee every night for three months and receiving absolutely no response, something happened. Three fingers appeared at the top of John’s sleeping bag in the shape of a “W”.
The “W” was followed by the raising of an index finger.
John was finally engaging and requesting white coffee with one sugar, followed by a thumbs up.
This was the depth of our engagement for the ensuing three months.
It was important that we remained consistent and friendly and not be put off by the lack of connection with John.
After about six months, John finally emerged from his sleeping bag.
Still there was no verbal communication.
We tried different workers and volunteers engaging with John, but to no avail.
Then one night, John became very agitated.
Rather than retreating and passing judgement on John as, “one to stay away from”, our team continued to try and sensitively, patiently, and respectfully connect with him.
Finally, it happened.
John’s offending was related to his survival.
He stole food from a local supermarket simply to survive.
Australia’s social safety net is actually the envy of the world.
However, we still hear and see stories of the John’s of the world far too regularly. It is the story of a person who is absolutely eligible for income support from Centrelink, but often due to significant mental health challenges, the person is unable to navigate their way through the Centrelink system.
There are many people, like John, who end up before the courts and even in prison, because their offending is related to their circumstances and unfortunately, in many cases, their circumstances are never fully addressed.
In 2004, Centrelink ran a pilot program, where, instead of waiting for a highly vulnerable person to present at a Centrelink office requesting support, Centrelink decided to try and take their “office” to them.
A Centrelink worker worked full time with The Salvation Army Melbourne at our Bourke St office in 2004.
This meant that the Centrelink worker was based in our cafe that supports the most vulnerable people who access the city.
The Centrelink worker also worked on our nightly homeless outreach van.
The level of engagement that the Centrelink worker had with highly vulnerable people was astounding.
There were people that were rough sleeping that had lost their identification.
They had no idea how to rectify the situation, so they simply gave up.
There were others that had visited Centrelink offices but due to frustration with the system, they were asked to leave the building.
Again, the individuals involved had no idea how to resolve the issue, so they simply gave up.
Having a Centrelink worker meeting them in the park where they were sleeping was a great way to rebuild trust with the system.
The Centrelink worker, being experienced in navigating the system, was able to resolve many issues.
People were able to receive income support and were able to start to rebuild their lives once again.
Services Australia, who have oversight of Centrelink, has reached out to four services around the country, including The Salvation Army Melbourne.
They have rebegan the Centrelink worker pilot.
In the first week of operation, the Centrelink worker based at Bourke St was able to assist 60 people.
Not only were they given assistance and helped to navigate the system, but most importantly, they were given hope.
Suddenly, they realised that they are not on their own and that the system can actually be their friend, not their foe.
This is a superb initiative undertaken by Services Australia, and they are to be congratulated for thinking outside of the box to prevent the most vulnerable from falling through the gaps.
Hopefully this pilot will become business as usual for Centrelink so that, in 20 years’ time, we are not having to trial this idea as a pilot for the third time. •