As soon as I walked in the front door I felt a surge of memories of women and children I met here all those years ago… Are they safe? writes Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls.
By Sarah Puls SGS
It’s 20 years since I first stood in the kitchen at the Good Samaritan Inn and prepared dinner for a house full of guests; women and children who were welcomed into a safe and warm place, a refuge from the homelessness they were experiencing. The memories of those people, of those experiences, are still so strong in me and I often wonder what they remember, or if they remember at all.
In 1999, I began as a volunteer, cooking meals for the guests each fortnight, and a few years later I returned as the first paid worker, a role I continued until 2007.
After an absence of 12 years, I returned earlier this year.
After all these years, the place has changed in some significant ways, but what strikes me most is that the special role it plays in the lives of the guests remains much the same as it has been since its beginning in 1996. As I spend time with the women and children now it is clear they value a place in which they are safe and supported. What also strikes me is that the space and the peaceful atmosphere allow them to reconnect with their sense of self, their hopes and their strengths.
The Inn provides short-term emergency accommodation for single women, and women with children, escaping family violence and homelessness. The women and children are considered to be guests and are provided with a supportive, safe and clean place to stay. They can attend to their immediate needs, prior to moving on to other short-term or transitional accommodation or returning safely to their home. While this mission has continued the service has expanded over the years and guests are now able to access professional support from staff who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As soon as I walked in the front door I felt a surge of memories of the women and children I met here all those years ago. I wonder where they are now. Are they safe? Were they able to create the future they had hoped for? I wonder what they remember of their time with us.
In my early days here, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the stories and struggles of the guests. What role could I possibly play in their lives? Of course, we could provide them with safety and any material things they might need, but would this be enough? In time, I understood that the most important thing I could do was to be a living witness to the people I met and to help them believe they were valued and worthy of care. My interaction with them helped demonstrate my belief that they had the right to safety and to be who they were, in all their complexity and all their giftedness. My words and actions could show that they were able to make their own decisions and live their lives the way they chose. As we interacted with everyone who came into the house, we could embody the truth that they deserved to be treated with respect and compassion, not because of what they had experienced or what struggles they now faced, but simply by their humanity.
Returning to the Inn has brought back many wonderful memories of my earlier times there working with Sister Anne Dixon, Sister Helen Mills, and with many other Sisters and volunteers. There are people and experiences that are imprinted so clearly in my memory and bring an instant smile to my face.
There was the woman who had no English and yet taught me a card game and communicated her desire to eat eggs by acting out a chicken laying, which she then mimed catching and cooking. There were the beautiful young Muslim girls who taught me to say “bismillah” (In the name of Allah) before eating so that God knows we are grateful. The stories shared while sitting on the couch on the back verandah and the tears shed when women moved on to their next accommodation are just some of the memories that stir a deep sadness and compassion within me.
There were occasions when a woman would decide to return to a situation which I feared was not free or safe. Some women and children I could name now, while others are faded figures whose courage and strength are remembered, but whose names and stories have dimmed over time. While every story is precious and the struggles real, they are not what defines them. These women and children, who taught me so much when they were in the midst of their struggle, are not limited by their stories and experiences.
Usually the day someone arrives in emergency accommodation, they are having one of the hardest days of their life. The circumstances that result in someone becoming homeless are as diverse and individual as one can imagine. My time working at The Inn taught me to be clear that my role was not to rescue or save our guests from some darkness that I thought I could see. My role was simply to welcome them in a way that left no doubt in their minds that they were a people who deserved freedom from whatever darkness they had known, and a future that allowed them hope and lightness in life.
When I reflect on the work of The Inn I feel deep gratitude to all those women and children I encountered. It was, and continues to be, a privilege to know them for even a short time. I trust that they are safe and that they now know freedom, confidence and love in their lives. I hope when they think back to their stay at the Inn, they remember they were safe and welcomed; that they were valued regardless of the circumstances that brought them there.