St Mary’s House of Welcome in Brunswick Street was opened by the Daughters of Charity in 1960 to respond to the needs of homeless and disadvantaged people in Fitzroy. Since then, they have been a source of continuous support to hundreds of vulnerable people in Melbourne sleeping rough, experiencing or at risk of homelessness, providing basic essential services.

Every year, the House of Welcome hosts a Christmas lunch for our community of people sleeping rough around Melbourne. Called the Big Give, it’s hosted in the Fitzroy Town Hall and attracts Federal, State and Local Government politicians and business luminaries who come to help serve meals to 250 homeless people.

However, this year, owing to recommendations around indoor gatherings, the tough call of not opening on Christmas Day was required.

‘We obviously can’t have the Big Give over at Fitzroy Town Hall this year,’ says Robina Bradley, CEO of St Mary’s House of Welcome. ‘But we want to ensure that people sleeping rough or experiencing chronic homelessness, or those in crisis accommodation don’t go without this Christmas.’

Instead, the House of Welcome will be stretching Christmas festivities over the five days leading up to 25 December.

‘With the help of Charity meals program supported through The Parliamentary kitchen is going to cook a Christmas-style meal for us and will serve people with Christmas meal packs over that Christmas week. We’re also going to be giving out hampers to our community.” Included in the hamper will be essential food supplies and some festive treats.

‘We’ll only close on the public holiday, but we’ll just make sure that everyone’s got basic staples, and things like Christmas pudding, chocolate; a lot of Christmas treats.’

A typical food pack distributed during the lockdown.

To help distribute the hamper and meal packs the House of Welcome will be calling in some guests, including Minister for Housing Richard Wynne.

And over the Christmas period, it’s not just about meals. St Mary’s House of Welcome provides professional support, showering facilities and most importantly, kindness and companionship. For many, the House of Welcome is a sanctuary where people can come and get the support they need with no judgement and can begin to turn their lives around.

‘We want to make sure that they can celebrate Christmas with a tasty nutritious meal, but also letting them know that they’re not alone.’

Throughout 2020, the House of Welcome stayed active meeting the many challenges presented by COVID-19. Like organisations all over the city, the pandemic forced SMHOW to adapt and evolve models of service to those needing assistance.

‘People in Melbourne were hit so hard this year,’ Robina says. ‘We’ve had to reimagine services to connect with people under lockdown while providing a sense of community and welcome and still be COVID safe.’

Many homeless people were moved into temporary accommodation but were still in need of support including meals and clothing. The House of Welcome was able to provide this support, with assistance from StreetSmart Australia’s Smart Meals program to the Parliamentary kitchens, which provided daily meals and will continue to do so until June 2021.

The House of Welcome adapted to a take-away model, where clients would be served from a counter at the front.

Serving meal packs to clients from the counter.

‘We had a mix of rough sleepers and homeless people who were in short term accommodation, but unstable. Most days, we’d see between 70 and 110 people out the front. We’d give them a meal, a cup of coffee, and have a good chat.’ Also available were personal hygiene packs, showers and laundry passes.

Amongst the homeless communities of Melbourne, the response was a mix of relief and gratitude.

‘During COVID, they kept the place open for a meal and shower and some fresh socks and jocks each day,’ says Ed, a client sleeping rough. ‘We thought they would close and I did not know where I would go.’

Another client, Ali, is an asylum seeker also sleeping rough. ‘I love the way they support us in ways to make us feel we have a place – the meals are really good and keep changing.’

Mark, a frequent service user said he couldn’t thank St Mary’s House of Welcome enough.

‘I find it hard sometimes to be in the outside world. St Mary’s House of Welcome has become a home to me. I can come in and have a hot meal. They are exceptional. I can have breakfast, lunch, you get really looked after. I probably would have kept drinking if it were not for St Mary’s House of Welcome. If I kept the way I was going, I might have been a goner. It might have saved my life coming here.’
A client checking in to use the in-house facilities.

Throughout the year, the House of Welcome also began supporting international students living in Melbourne who were not covered by Government programs like Jobkeeper or Jobseeker.

And Robina is clear that all this was only possible thanks to the generous support of Melburnians from volunteers to local business owners, restaurant owners and schools. ‘People have been very generous supporting us.

‘One company came in last week and said they would make a donation for clothes for Christmas. Which is enormous, as everyone’s been struggling with clothes, because the op shops haven’t been taking donations throughout the year.’

‘And our wonderful school partners are making donations. They’re just beautiful.’ It’s a real display of faith in action and bringing social justice to the front.

‘People have really connected to our community during all of COVID, and this time, and really thought what can I do? and it’s been wonderful and I think people throughout COVID have sort of suddenly realized it’s hard to be at home but actually, it’d be worse if you’re sleeping on the streets or stuck in a hotel room for six months, getting a box of food a day.’

As a response to the pandemic, St Mary’s House of Welcome will be joining other Catholic social service agencies to look at how services can better respond to crises like COVID. by joining in research with ACU and Monash University on emergency food relief, and how to be effective in addressing rising food insecurity.

‘For me personally,’ Robina says, ‘it is about being the hands and feet of Jesus,’ Robina says, recalling a reflection led by Debra McCarthy DC, Trustee and Board member: ‘She said we should hunt down poverty in order to give humanity its dignity.’ And according to Robina, one of the most important parts of their work is showing that sense of compassion and kindness to people in need. ‘A poor person is more touched by kindness than material help,’ she says, reminding us that inherent in any welcome is recognising someone’s dignity.