Council shuts church homeless shelter
Thursday, 22 August 2019
By Carolyn Webb
A volunteer group providing the homeless with free winter overnight beds in churches says Yarra Ranges council has left its clients ‘‘out in the cold’ by ordering the service to close.
The local state Liberal MP for Evelyn, Bridget Vallence, slammed the closure as "mindless bureaucracy" and said lives depended on the ‘‘truly remarkable program’’.
The not for profit group Stable One, which runs the Winter Shelter program with eight eastern suburbs churches, said the council had enforced a ‘‘strict interpretation’’ of Victorian Building Authority regulations.
StableOne managing director Jenny Willetts said the council staff ruled that the churches must obtain Class 3 permits, akin to a boarding house.
Ms Willetts said the churches could not afford the tens of thousands of dollars needed to draw up new plans and conduct renovations on things such as smoke alarm systems, fire separation walls and showers.
Ms Willetts said the new requirement ‘‘incorrectly characterises the program and inflates the perceived risk’’.
‘‘Although guests are given the opportunity to sleep on a camp bed, it is not a kind of private lodging" she said.
‘‘The primary function and use of the program is to provide those experiencing homelessness a place to seek ‘protection or sanctuary from hostile conditions’ in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘shelter’.’’
Ms Willetts said Winter Shelter churches had provided free beds and meals to 40 different homeless men and women this winter — up to 10 per night — who otherwise would have to sleep in doorways, parks and cars.
‘‘We call upon local councils, state government and the VBA to take a common sense approach and allow shelter at the worst time of the year to be available to the most vulnerable.’’
In State Parliament on August 13, Ms Vallence called on Planning Minister Richard Wynne to ‘‘urgently intervene’’ to clarify how the Building Act was to be applied to churches providing short-term shelter for the homeless.
She said Winter Shelter had been dealt a ‘‘serious blow by the mindless bureaucracy of this Labor government’’, and yet had been allowed to operate for three years.
The new requirements were ‘‘completely disproportionate and unnecessary’’ to the services Stable One was trying to provide to the community’s most vulnerable.
Homeless man Nathan, 26, who has slept indoors thanks to Winter Shelter for the past two months, said he felt ‘‘teary’’ that he would have to revert to sleeping in a cold park, near a toilet block to protect himself from wind and rain.
He was sad Winter Shelter was closing. ‘‘It’s been a godsend."
The government needed ‘‘to have a long hard think and re-evaluate it, because it’s putting a lot of people back on the streets,’’ Nathan said. ‘‘All the boarding houses are full or they’re too expensive’’.
Yarra Ranges Shire director, social and economic development James Collins said earlier this year that the council received advice from the VBA that organisations offering accommodation for homeless people needed to obtain relevant occupancy permits to ensure buildings were safe for that use.
"These requirements are in place to help protect the community by minimising the risks, particularly risks associated with building fires or faulty electrical wiring," Mr Collins said.
"We only became aware on Monday that they were still operating their shelter.
"Unfortunately, based on the previous advice from the VBA, we had no choice but to ask them to stop operating until an occupancy permit was in place."
A VBA spokesperson says it "believes the Yarra Ranges has made a strict interpretation of VBA advice".
Section 64 of the Building Act 1993 could be used to allow rough sleepers to use the churches as overnight shelter but the council building surveyor might require "installation of additional smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting for example".
Planning Minister Richard Wynne said he had asked the VBA and his department to work with Stable One and the council towards a solution, "because we need make sure that the places people sleep are safe”.