Member Profile: St. Patrick's Community Support Centre

| By Royceton Hardey. 

As I found myself in the dining room at St Patrick’s Community Support Centre there was a phrase which suddenly came back to me. 

Ahead of my visit I had done some website research and a story about the Centre’s dining room stated that the meals service is pivotal to everything St Patrick’s does. 

So, I wasn’t surprised when it was the first place Michael Piu, the Chief Executive Officer of St Patrick’s wanted to show me, and it didn’t take him long to elaborate on the philosophy. 

“Food is important, there is the aspect of providing nutritious meals of course, but just as important is the opportunity of engagement with people,” Michael said.

“For a variety of reasons, people who have experienced homelessness can be reluctant to engage. They may well have been through significant trauma, and indeed mental health issues might be in play, and circumstances such as these can create a lack of trust. The Day Centre is a non-judgmental place and it allows people to get to know the staff and build trust.”

I had come after lunch, so the noise of dishwashers and cutlery clanging was emanating from the side kitchen. The Centre provides a free breakfast and a five-dollar lunch comprised of a three-course cooked meal.

The Centre’s many other services are cleverly built around the large dining room space which can be likened to the ‘GO’ square on a Monopoly board. When trust is established the client is encouraged to utilise many other services available under the one roof.

“You need to grab them while they are here and make the services flexible,” explains Michael. “If you send people away to an appointment perhaps on the other side of town, they might not remember the detail, or the travel could be a deterrent.

“We find what works best is to create a one stop shop.”

The combination of partnerships that provide the various services is incredible. There are too many to list, but Michael gives me an idea of the major ones who provide health services.

“Black Swan Health bring doctors on site; a registered nurse is here five days a week in a partnership with Silver Chain, a number of universities bring their final year allied health students here and there are an extensive number of individual practitioners who volunteer their time,” Michael said.

As we move throughout the building I see several standard consultation rooms that house a range of clinical services. Services include remedial massage, chiropractic, physiotherapy, counselling, and podiatry. There’s even hairdressing – a luxury many St. Pat’s clients struggle to afford.

In a bigger room several rows of glasses are hanging from the wall.

“This is the optometry room,” Michael explains.

“The Optometry Association organised for all of this to be donated from a supplier locally, they also organise a roster of independent professionals to come in and provide eye health checks and services.”

The glasses are also donated and are comprised of out of stock or last season type brands. Some brands are well known and stylish. A large ophthalmology machine takes up one side of the room.

I’m very impressed, but Michael hints there is something better to come. Like a tour operator who leaves the best for last, I’m led through a simple looking door into something I had not expected.

I am staring not only at a fully furnished dentist’s chair, but an entire dental suite surrounding it. Bright lights illuminate the space and I see an X-Ray arm hanging from the ceiling.

Michael Piu, CEO, St Patrick’s Community Support Centre.

Suction cups, dentist tools, and denture moulds are neatly stacked, and a sterile area adjoins the main room. It is difficult to believe I am still in the same building.

The room was bigger than the one my own dentist has, and it was better equipped.

“We are very proud of this,” Michael says with his smile notably wider.

“When I first entered this sector, I kept hearing about the problems associated with getting dental support for our client group. And I kept chipping away at people, trying to tell them that I thought this is something which could be done.

“It took years, but we finally got a business plan up and running and we went from there. A few philanthropic funders, most notably Ian Potter Foundation, Lotterywest and Sisters of St John of God along with discounts from dentist equipment providers helped us achieve this, but most importantly, the dental profession really got behind us. A Commonwealth Grant secured a refit to accommodate our Orthopantomogram (OPG) machine which provides a panoramic x-ray of the lower face, which displays all the teeth of the upper and lower jaw, as well as a separate sterile room to meet best practice guidelines.

It was a remarkable room and by this stage I thought I had seen everything the building had to offer. But I had not been up the stairs yet and on the second level Michael points out to me a high-rise of flats which contain a mix of crisis accommodation and transitional housing.

“One floor is dedicated to crisis accommodation for males, and is one of the few housing offerings for which we are funded to provide case management support,” Michael said. “So, the client is connected to the right services as soon as they come off the street.”

In total, St Patrick’s has stock of 134 rooms spread out from Willagee to Rockingham. The latest venture, if planning approval is given, will add another 31 rooms of accommodation in the Shoalwater area.

In 1972 when St Patrick’s was first established, the dominant need was to support men but now with the demographics of homelessness shifting, there are two sites which provide women’s accommodation. There’s also accommodation and support services for families and youth in the greater Fremantle area, as well as a specialist housing support service for people with chronic mental health challenges.

Most accommodation is charged by St Patrick’s at a maximum of 25 percent of income of the occupant, equating to a standard Centrelink benefit. All other costs are covered by St Patrick’s.

As we chat more generally about issues regarding homelessness support Michael believes prevention is the key to the overall issue.

“We are not even scratching the surface when it comes to prevention,” Michael explains. “One project we host here through our Imagined Futures collective impact group is called the Imagined Futures Youth Initiative.

“Working in schools in Melville, Cockburn and Fremantle, it is about engaging disengaged kids, and trying to keep them in school throughout the whole trajectory. Then it looks at their family situation, so addressing how we can capacity build families so children stay in school, grow and develop and then become independent members of the community.

“We know if a child does not complete school, research shows it costs the public purse a couple of hundred thousand dollars over a lifetime and perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

“We need to break this as early as possible.”

Back in the main building, with its open, flexible focus, it can be hard to track the numbers of people receiving support. Michael estimates 200 to 250 people will come in each day to use the services or have a meal. Other popular services include financial counselling and emergency relief. St. Pat’s also has two specialist outreach services - Street to Home links rough sleepers with support and accommodation, while Crossroads works with people in the Fremantle, Maylands and CBD who have alcohol or drug issues and are at risk of homelessness.

With so many services available it’s clear that St Patrick’s has successfully become a true community connector, where partnerships are built, support is given and lives are remade.

“We’re here to make accessing support as simple as possible,” says Michael. “In a nutshell, we give people the tools they need to effect lasting and meaningful change in their lives.”

Homelessness is solvable but it requires the sector to work collaboratively and develop evidence-based approaches; as well as to build understanding in the broader community around the causes of homelessness, and support for the solutions. SHELTER WA plays a key role in this important work. - Michael Piu, CEO, St Patrick’s Community Support Centre.


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