March 2011

Providing a safe haven for women

To celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day (March 8), The Good Oil spoke with a Good Samaritan Sister who spends her days providing a safe haven for women and children who find themselves homeless.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Good Samaritan Sister, Michelle Reid, believes women are the most resilient people she knows. “They are the ones that hold the family, partners and children together. They are the ones, who after being knocked down, keep getting up to start again,” she explains.

“Women hold the seed of possibility, of change, of hope within their very DNA. They are generous with themselves and can reach out to support each other through a great deal of pain and can still throw their heads back and laugh at their situation or cling to each other and cry together.”

Michelle says no matter what is happening in the lives of women, they have a remarkable capacity to put themselves aside to care for children or a parent or another person they think is in greater need. She doesn’t deny that men have this capacity too, but based on her experiences, it’s stronger in women.

Michelle is well placed to make these claims. She has interacted with people from all walks of life in a variety of places. Following many years in teaching and leadership roles in NSW schools, her ministries over the past ten years have connected her with women, men and children living on the edges of life, often in very tough, precarious and complicated circumstances.

In the Philippines she lived with women and their families in a squatter settlement near Bacolod helping them to implement a scholarship programme so that children were encouraged to finish their education.

This was her first time living in a developing country and she found the experience hard. “You would read the Gospels each day and see [the stories] right in front of you, and I think that was very confronting,” she says.

From early 2000 until the end of 2005, Michelle lived in the newly independent Timor Leste. For four of those five years she taught English and art at the Becora Prison for men in Dili.

Did she find working with men who had committed serious crimes difficult?

“Once you have established a relationship it’s not as easy to be judgmental because you understand the complexities of what they’re up against,” she answers. “You become more compassionate towards them knowing their circumstances.”

Michelle says she witnessed what it cost the men to be away from their families, which was further exacerbated by the communal nature of Timorese culture.

Since 2007, Michelle has been Manager of The Good Samaritan Inn in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. The Inn provides crisis accommodation for women and children who find themselves homeless, many as a result of domestic violence.

At any one time The Inn can accommodate three families and two single women. The staff, backed by a large team of volunteers, provide 24-hour support from Monday to Friday.

Michelle says The Inn provides women with space where they can be safe, have someone they can talk to and support them in the decisions they need to make about their future. For some, this can be the circuit breaker that allows them to stop and reassess their lives.

“What we do is limited and what we do is very, very simple, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a profound impact,” says Michelle. “We have a prophetic task to perform and it is a real privilege to be in this position.”

As an example, she recalls one woman’s comment: “I leave here just that little bit stronger”. “That might sound small to someone else, but we see the subtle changes in the women and I think it’s a wonderful thing to actually strengthen somebody.”

Michelle would love The Inn to be open 24/7 but 24/5 is all they can sustain financially at the moment. “It’s hard to have people in crisis and then they have to leave on Friday,” she says.

In the early years, the Good Samaritan Congregation was the sole financial backer with the Good Samaritan Foundation also playing a major role. But now The Inn is also supported by a variety of sources, including some government funding, corporate and community sector support, as well as many individuals and small groups.

One of Michelle’s biggest challenges is convincing government that The Inn is not only worthy of funding for 24/7, but that it meets the various regulations. “We’ve already done accreditation. We’re coming up to our third one now. We meet all those standards, but more importantly, we provide a very unique service and it should be supported to flourish,” she explains.

So what makes The Inn unique? Explaining this isn’t an easy task for Michelle because it has a lot to do with people’s experience of the space.

“People walk into the building and they sense something is different here. The guests all comment on it. Other agencies who visit say ‘there is a calmness in the building.’”

A smattering of comments from previous guests says it all: “I have never felt so at home in a stranger’s place”; “I felt so comfortable and [it] made me feel like I was worth something”; “It’s so peaceful, relaxing and healing here”; “I have never felt more safe and happy. Even my kids are happy”; and “My time has been precious. I got better here”.

The results of a soon-to-be-published research study conducted by students at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology suggest it is The Inn’s philosophical approach to homelessness that is different.

“We certainly don’t support that one-size-fits-all. We try to maintain the integrity and dignity of the individual person. We have the flexibility to respond to the individual,” explains Michelle.

Those who stay at the The Inn are referred to, and treated as, guests, not clients. Michelle says this is fundamental and has an enormous impact on the women and children. She says the staff and volunteers aim to nurture the guests in all sorts of ways, whether it’s by preparing meals, ensuring the house is clean and comfortable, or being available to listen at all hours of the day.

“We try to create an environment that is open and welcoming of all nationalities and cultures. For instance, we been having halal meat for three or four years,” she says.

“This is our sign of respect to our Muslim sisters who stay and work with us. Unless our words have concrete actions they are useless. We are constantly challenged by other cultures, their ways of thinking and living and we are always learning new ways to relate together.”

Michelle believes that a vital component of The Inn since it began in 1996 is its “big swell of volunteers”. There have always been around 70 involved in varying capacities. Some volunteers might sleep over after finishing at their own work, while others will come to clean, help prepare a meal or interact with the guests. Then there are volunteers who cook from their own home and drop off cakes and casseroles, or those who participate in The Inn’s committees.

During the four years that Michelle has worked at The Inn she has noticed some definite patterns emerging among women who are homeless. One in three women now experience some form of violence in their lives and these statistics are getting worse.

There has been an increase in the number of older women seeking safe accommodation. She attributes some of this to more children living longer at home and the potential for tensions and family violence to arise, particularly from male sons towards elderly mothers.

A group particularly vulnerable are women from non-English speaking backgrounds whose husbands keep them in very controlling circumstances, isolated and ignorant. Of greater concern though, is the welfare of women who are in the country without permanent visas or who arrived on their husband’s or partner’s visa and that relationship has broken down. They are harder to place in accommodation because there is no funding for them in refuges.

But the biggest increase, according to Michelle, is in the number of women with mental health issues. “There are those women who have been diagnosed and come with their medications, but there is an enormous number who are undiagnosed. We’re struggling with that,” she says.

Michelle loves her work at The Inn. She describes the place as “a pearl” and “one of the purest forms of what we as a congregation should be on about – being neighbour”. She says the women and children she meets each day are “inspirational”.

But at the same time, there are days when her role is overwhelming and stressful. It’s then that she is very conscious of having balance in her life and planning creative activities for herself. She loves photography and the theatre, and has recently taken up golf.

When she’s at The Inn and feeling “really stressed” she has been known to head out to the backyard for some respite. “We have a nice vegie garden, and often if there’s kids in the house, I’ll go out and get the basket… and we’ll get the vegies for tea and we’ll talk. Kids are a source of energy,” she says.

“And if there’s no kids, I’ll just go out and weed. Somehow, pulling those weeds out sort of seems to ground me, and at least I can come back and say, ‘Well the day might have been a bugger, but at least I’ve weeded the vegie garden!’”

The garden has also proved to be an important space for the guests. Michelle recalls the experience of one woman who had some mental health issues and arrived very agitated. She asked if she could rearrange the pot plants in the backyard. A little perplexed, Michelle agreed.

“She would go out there all day, wouldn’t interact with others in the house. She only came in for meals and went to bed,” explains Michelle.

“She got calmer each day. At the end [of the week] she said to me, ‘Somehow, tidying up your messy backyard helped sort my head out’. And I said, ‘Well that’s great. You’ve got a clearer head and we’ve got a better backyard!’”

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