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Anglicans join wider efforts to support locked-down residents

Brotherhood of St Laurence, local churches, swing into action to assist tower locked-down residents

By Mark Brolly

July 15 2020Anglicans responded to the lockdown of public housing estates across nine sites in Flemington and North Melbourne this month with ecumenical, interfaith and community action to assist the 3000 residents as Victoria's coronavirus crisis worsened, leading to a second lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, to the city's north.  

The Brotherhood of St Laurence reported that it had more than 1000 participants and service users living in the affected towers – and several staff. Staff from across a range of community programs teams and trained volunteers conducted welfare checks by phone from the morning of Monday 6 July, less than 48 hours after the State Government ordered the immediate lockdown of the estates -- forcing residents to stay in their units for five days. 

The Fitzroy-based agency worked with Red Cross, the Victorian Multicultural Commission, Government departments and others to coordinate the response, while it also advocated for people with their employers so that they could keep their jobs. 

A Brotherhood spokeswoman said that at the request of Victorian Multicultural Commission, it supplied 10 multilingual staff for translation support in Arabic, Dinka, Farsi, Urdu, Persian, Dari and Somali at the COVID-19 testing stations set up to test residents.  

On 5 July, the Government appointed former Brotherhood Executive Director, Mr Tony Nicholson, to provide advice on additional support for the public housing residents. 

Anglicare Victoria's CEO, Mr Paul McDonald, said his agency had responded rapidly to a request from the Victorian Government to provide assistance to two of the public housing towers under hard lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Mr McDonald said 20 staff worked in rolling shifts, responding to more than 450 calls over the first five days for immediate needs such as food and medication, nappies and sanitary products as well as social support. He added that Anglicare Victoria had operated seven days a week during the hard lockdown of the towers.  

“Many of the people living in the towers were understandably distressed at being isolated high above the ground, and really appreciated someone checking in with them," he said. "In some cases families were managing five or more children in a small space. We can learn a lot from these residents about finding resilience in difficult circumstances.  

“Anglicare Victoria staff actively coordinated with emergency response workers to quickly locate urgently-needed food and other items. In addition, we, we provided medication, educational books, toys and craft materials to families with young children. We are currently seeking assistance to provide 50 to 100 remote learning education packs for children in the towers. 

“In addition to phone support, our staff were also trained in face-to-face assessment of COVID-19 cases, allowing them to safely door-knock residents with positive test results to check on their health and wellbeing, and offer transfers to quarantine in hotel rooms. We are still following up those who need mental health, family violence and other social supports. 

“The partnership of all the agencies involved with the Department of Health and Human Services has worked well and we were very pleased to offer assistance to people in need with the department’s support.” 

The Vicar of St Mary's North Melbourne, the Revd Canon Jan Joustra, said his parish was "basically supporting the supporters", including providing resources to the Brotherhood, Muslim charity organisations and other groups providing essentials to residents. 

"We don't have a ministry as such to the towers but what we are doing us supporting the other agencies that do and so we are channelling things in their direction and that seems to be the best thing to do," Canon Joustra said. 

"The last thing they need is to have the odd clergyperson wandering around trying to look relevant." 

Canon Joustra said a parishioner of St Mary's lived next to the towers and had been in touch with the Muslim charity, which had delivered culturally appropriate essentials to locked-down residents. He said, for instance, that there was no point taking prepared meals because culturally, they were not appropriate for Muslims, so it was important for the parish to work within and support existing structures for residents without creating new ones.  

St Mary's focus traditionally had been towards Melbourne University, he said, while St Alban's Anglican Church on the corner of Melrose and Mark Streets in North Melbourne, which is close to the Canning Street flats, had been closed down in recent years. 

But Canon Joustra said St Mary's was connected with other churches and organisations in North Melbourne, such as the local Uniting Church parish, the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist, and had a representative on the board of its social outreach arm, Hotham Mission. The Mission provides community outreach and support to some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups throughout North Melbourne, Flemington, Kensington and Parkville. 

The lockdown was lifted for all estates on 9 July, except 33 Alfred Street in North Melbourne, where residents were told to remain in isolation. More than 2500 residents were tested and 158 positive cases identified across the locked-down estates, with the Alfred Street block having the highest number of cases. 

Most residents of the Alfred Street tower ended two weeks of hard lockdown late on Saturday 18 July, allowing them to join other Melburnians under stage three restrictions, leaving their homes for food, medicine, exercise, study and work. But up to one third of the tower's residents who had the virus or were close contacts of people with COVID-19, were forced to remain in their units until they were cleared.