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Bringing rough sleepers in from the cold in Shepparton

Bringing rough sleepers in from the cold in Shepparton

Bringing rough sleepers in from the cold in Shepparton

7 July 2021

Meeting the needs of vulnerable people on the streets is at the core of The Salvation Army’s mission and ministry. Salvos in Shepparton have united with several other churches in the Victorian city to operate a Winter Night Shelter for rough sleepers.

By Jessica Morris

Nights can be freezing in Victoria’s rural north, but a warm-hearted initiative by nine churches in the city of Shepparton is bringing vulnerable people in from the cold, literally.

The Salvation Army is a vital cog in the operation of the Winter Night Shelter, which offers 10 beds each night from June through to the end of August. Seven of the churches involved offer their building to be the shelter’s host on any given night.

Mayor Kim O’Keefe (centre) with representatives from the Winter Night Shelter (from left) Shepparton Corps Officer Captain Karyn Wishart, Assistant Project Manager Tara McGrath, Louwana Fowler and Mary-Ann Demase, at the shelter’s launch in March. Photo credit: Shepparton News.

Shepparton Corps Officer Captain Karyn Wishart says the ministry is about creating a space where all people are welcome at any time. When the corps is a venue, people who have sought a bed for the night are then invited to stay and have a cuppa and some food, shower, wash their clothes and perhaps relax and watch some TV.

Three weeks in, and Karyn is already seeing the fruit of the initiative. “One man said to me, ‘I can feel my skin – I haven’t felt my skin for so long. When I had a shower, I was so cold it felt like burning. Now I feel warm’,” Karyn said. “You’ve got to take those gold nuggets. He had felt so cold for so long.”

While the churches have pioneered the Winter Night Shelter, they have taken inspiration from the StableOne Project [an organisation that supports the Church to run winter shelters], and other evolving projects in places like Wangaratta and Bendigo. 

Not only has Shepparton Mayor Kim O’Keeffe backed the project and acted as part of the project team, but multiple businesses have also donated money and goods, raising $50,000 towards the cause. And the Winter Night Shelter isn’t short on volunteers either. Currently, 211 locals have put their hand up to help. And most of them aren’t even church attendees.

“[We] don’t know the Kingdom impact that’s happening with guests and volunteers,” Karyn said. “Shepparton is a wonderful community, and the way we have seen the outpouring is grandiose – above and beyond what we would have expected.”

While the community has thrown their tangible support behind the city’s rough sleepers, the most remarkable shift has emerged in locals who have re-evaluated their perspectives about those who are experiencing homelessness. “One man told me, ‘When I’m walking around, people aren’t looking through me anymore, they’re looking at me’,” Karyn said.

The Winter Night Shelter was put on hold last year due to a COVID-19 lockdown, but now that it is up and running, they’ve received nothing but positive feedback from the community and volunteers. The enthusiasm is so great that Karyn plans to take out a street outreach team next weekend so they can meet other rough sleepers.

“As long as we have our staffing capacity staying at the venue, the rest of the team will hit the road. We will help those doing it rough, talk to them and inform them about the shelter,” she said.

And every person they meet will be left with at least one knitted item. From blankets to beanies, there is no limit to the miraculous generosity God is cultivating in Victoria’s north. And it means people are getting their dignity back.

“It’s lovely watching [people] standing taller, starting to fill out from some good meals and to see their skin colour improving,” Karyn said. “This gives us the opportunity to get to know them as people and see how we can be assisting them if they want that.”

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