There’s no stereotype for a homeless person. Or at least that’s the belief of Stephen McDermott. As the CEO of Fremantle’s Saint Patrick’s Community Support Centre, he’s acutely aware of the plight of those doing it tough.
“There’s certainly more people accessing our services, that’s for sure,” he says. “But it’s coming from people that mightn’t have accessed our services in the past. These are people who’ve got part-time jobs. In the past we would have been servicing those predominantly outside of the work system.”
Despite the changing face of homelessness, Saint Patricks – or Saint Pat’s as the organisation is affectionately known – keeps on keeping on. Named after the Fremantle church that the organisation grew out of, Saint Pat’s has been looking out for vulnerable members of the Freo community since 1972. What began as sandwiches served to a lone man that came knocking on the presbytery door is, today, an organisation based in various hospitals and community centres – its current headquarters is the old Stella Maris Centre in Freo – dedicated to helping people get back on their feet and back into society.
Its roll-call of services is inspiring. Temporary accommodation for at-risk people. Street doctors. Rehabilitation. Running the Starlight Hotel Choir, an all-in singing group that’s as much about making friends as it is music. Each year, more than 31,000 meals are prepared for those that mightn’t always remember the last time they ate. McDermott recites even more stirring figures. The 200 people a day that pass through the centre. The $145,000 worth of dental treatment dentists have performed – for free – in the last six months. Although the centre employs full-time staff to co-ordinate services, there are more than 120 volunteers on Saint Pat’s books that muck in.
“We’re trying to get people back into the community,” says McDermott. “There’s a whole range of reasons why people might end up on the streets, not least mental health, or drugs or alcohol. It’s about working through those issues and getting them back into society.”
Despite these healthy volunteer numbers, work like Saint Pat’s isn’t easy or cheap. After 20 years, the centre has made the gut-wrenching decision to, come October, end its weekend meal service to ensure the survival of its Monday-to-Friday program (McDermott: “We try to stretch our funding as far as we can, but, in the long run, you’ve got to look at where your time is most effective.”). The number of people calling on Saint Pat’s for food vouchers far outweighs the available funding. Fortunately, programs like CafeSmart – the annual, national initiative that raises both funds and awareness of the valuable work done by community organisations such as Saint Pat’s – are making a difference. For every coffee sold on CafeSmart Day on Friday August 4, a local organisation like Saint Pat's will receive a dollar. It’s a small way to make a big contribution.
“Everybody is tightening the belt at the moment: it’s the way of the world at the moment,” says McDermott. “Unfortunately the people who are tightening their belts the most are the ones that have the least.”
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