Shepparton’s homeless battle; the heartbreaking truth

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HEARTS OF GOLD… Local resident, Azem Elmaz and wife, Jeihan Elmaz are passionate about providing a helping hand to those in need, pictured with the Ethnic Council’s strategic engagement coordinator, Sam Atukorala. There is a dedicated space at the rear of Lutfiyes Shish Kabab on Wyndham Street which is open 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to use for those doing it tough. Photo: Sarah Knight.

SOME 2,209 people from across the Shepparton area were reported to have accessed homelessness services during the reporting period of 2017 and 2018, as recorded by industry body, Council to Homeless Persons. This number included families with children, young people, older people, single adults, people with disabilities.

And that number is on the rise, according to both the Council to Homeless Persons and those who proactively support and advocate for our local community.

People Supporting People’s founder, Azem Elmaz has been working on the ground in the community support space for over 29 years and when asked about the notable increase in the local homeless population, he said simply, if this was indeed, as perceived to be ‘the lucky country’ – why should anyone have to live like this.

In addition to the regular soup kitchen held at the Victoria Park Lake every weeknight from 5pm to 6pm, the People Supporting People food truck and countless other community support offerings from Azem, he and wife, Jeihan have also implemented a dedicated space at the rear of their shop on Wyndham Street which is open 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to use for those doing it tough. The unassuming little nook provides access to coffee and tea making facilities, biscuits and a toasted sandwich press with fresh supplies.

This offering is largely funded by the proceeds raised by the food truck, but with the increased demand, more supplies are always welcomed. When asked what contributions are required Azem replied, “Things like long life milk, food offerings and vouchers for people to use at the supermarkets. I try to stay away from dealing with money altogether.”

It was lunchtime when we were there and one homeless man, perhaps in his late 60s came along to make himself a coffee. We chatted briefly as he mentioned how grateful he was to both Azem and his wife for ‘the beautiful job they do.’ The conversation was short but within it I acknowledged the cold nights and mornings and asked if there was anything people could contribute or do that would make life a little easier; the answer was obvious as he welled up and attempted to choke back his tears, stating simply two words, “A home.”

A profound insight and one that had my heart sink with compassion for his despair.

It seems however that there are many great local community groups, organisations and independent businesses that are actively making a daily difference in the lives of those sleeping rough in our community.

One other such organisation is the South Shepparton Community Centre, that regularly provides respite, a friendly ear and links to other local support resources.

Passionate about supporting those less fortunate in our community, South Shepparton Community Centre manager, Dawn Taylor said, “I have noticed an increase in people coming to us. I think many of those sleeping rough come in when they hear about the Foodshare offering. Or sometimes the larger agencies refer people to us.

“We’ve also given out tents or blankets from our op shop supplies when we have them and Fairleys SUPA IGA gave us a $1,000 grant which we chose to use for personal care products; the sorts of things people need to keep their dignity. We made up individual bags for people.

“People can also just come in and have a cuppa or watch some TV. We can generally be just a friendly face, like a family and they can choose to be private or tell us about their lives. We don’t actually ask people for proof of their situation – we don’t judge.

“The thing is, you can’t just feed a person and think that will fix them. I know of one woman who lived for three years in her car for example,” Dawn said.

Local resources and support services include:

Free Soup Kitchen

Mon to Fri 5pm-6pm at Victoria Park Lake, Shepparton, next to Skate Park, Wednesdays 5pm-6pm at North Community House, Parkside Drive, Shepparton; Opportunity Shop, 4 Mill Street, Mooroopna; Numurkah Park, Melville Street, Numurkah; Hogan Street, Tatura and in Nathalia and Kyabram.

Shepparton Food Share

Based in Mooroopna, supplies donations from the bigger supermarkets to registered distributors, who come in and collect, then distribute to those in need. Non-perishable items are supplied but sometimes fruit, vegetables and meat may also be available.

Shepparton Community Centre

Food supplies, tea and coffee facilities, TV room, op shop, friendly family environment. 11 Service Street, Shepparton. Phone: 5821 6172.

Salvocare

Youth services, domestic and family violence services, financial assistance, employment services. 27 Wyndham St, Shepparton. Phone: 5820 8000

St Vincent De Paul

Assistance may include food, clothing, furniture, utility payments, financial assistance and someone to talk to.

Beyond Housing

Urgent housing assistance, housing support. Phone: 1800 825 955

Kildonan UnitingCare – Detour program supporting homeless young people or those at risk. Phone: 5831 6157