By Major Brendan Nottle – Commanding Officer of the Salvation Army Melbourne – Project 614
The Salvation Army Melbourne has been operating a café, 22 hours a day, seven days a week, from its Bourke St premises.
We were seeing over 500 people through the café each day. Many were homeless, others were at risk of homelessness, and many were dealing with complex mental health issues. There was a myriad of different stories and drivers for why they each presented to our café. But the one common denominator that underpinned all of their stories was loneliness. Social isolation from family and friends drove many of those that attended our café to claim that we, at the Salvos, were their only family. They literally had no one else to share their life with.
When the story of COVID-19 and its spread of death and destruction started to filter out of Wuhan, we became deeply concerned. Every day at the Salvos at Bourke St we were seeing 60 to 80 elderly Chinese at our café. Our initial fear was that this group was the impending target of COVID-19. Health experts assured us that the cohort that we saw were safe because they did not travel or move in close proximity to those who did travel. Their reassurances were quickly shattered when the virus arrived on our shores and the majority of the 500 people who attended our café were seen to be highly susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
The complicating factor that overlaid the deadly spread of this virus was that the health experts and politicians were claiming that the only way to allay the spread was through social distancing and social isolation.
How on earth do you explain to some of the loneliest people you have met that the only way to save their life is for them to do the very thing that has sapped life from so many of them for most of their living memory? I still recall feeling sick at having to tell these people to isolate.
Denise*, a regular at our café and many similar centres, sat in her wheelchair, sobbing, saying, “Brendan, if I stay inside four walls on my own, I will completely lose it. You don’t understand, I just need to see people. Please don’t take that from me.”
Our café had to close its doors so that we could enforce social isolation requirements. However, we continue to serve meals through the window of our café. It’s actually not about the food for most people. It’s about that one thing that many of us take for granted – social connection.
We now have workers ringing hundreds of people every day. Checking on their physical and mental health, and yes, their social health. That phone call is often the only human contact that many of these people have.
Our team has also taken to the streets during the day. Over the past three weeks, they have helped 203 people move off the streets and into emergency accommodation in hotels around Melbourne. Some would think that the mission was accomplished, but many in regards, it has only just begun. There is one hotel where 162 homeless people are currently being accommodated. The only kitchen facilities available to them are three microwaves. Our team is now delivering meals to all of these people, and yes, engaging in meaningful conversation with all of them. We hear stories of people in the general community complaining about a lack of internet connection, hence limiting their ability to stream movies. Others are livid that there is a lack of toilet paper or pasta. Next time you hear these stories, please think of those who literally have no-one to share their concerns, fears and uncertainty with.
*Name has been changed •