13 November 2023
If all goes well, Joshua Pietras’s new home slowly taking shape in the backyard of an eastern suburb property, will be done by Christmas.
The modest bungalow will mark the end of a period of homelessness that started when Mr Pietras’s mother, whom he was caring for, passed away in 2022.
Mr Pietras, then 51, was unable to afford the house, and started couch surfing.
He ended up with close relatives, but financial tensions strained the relationship, and Mr Pietras, a qualified chef, found himself friendless, unemployed and on the street with nowhere to go.
Fear of being alone at night, and the unceasing cold and hunger, drove Mr Pietras to a community organisation who referred him for emergency accommodation to a church participating in the Yarra Valley Winter Shelter program.
He arrived silent, anguished and withdrawn, expecting to bed down alongside potentially dangerous strangers, and to have to shoulder the judgments of people.
Instead, he found the church shelter comfortable, the meals hot, and the volunteers compassionate and respectful.
The experience, Mr Pietras said, changed his life.
The Yarra Valley Winter Shelter is a project of Stable One, a faith charity network that has been working since 2016 to help churches better support people experiencing homelessness during the coldest season.
This year, 134 volunteers from eight different churches in the Yarra Ranges area and the wider community came together to look after the needs of 23 shelter guests.
Stable One managing director Jenny Willetts said the volunteers’ skills and experiences were a blessing to the project.
Many came to it because they genuinely wanted to do something that practically made a difference for those caught in the rising tide of homelessness in the area, Ms Willetts said.
Wandin, Seville and Mount Evelyn Anglican Parish congregants, along with their part-time vicar the Reverend Ross Duncan, were among them.
Mr Duncan said his parishioners participated because they had a heart for people who were really struggling with life.
“The motivation to help comes from our humanity rather than our material ability to provide for them. But it’s not about self affirmation for us, but about what these people need,” he said.
Mr Duncan said many of the guests dealt with more than financial stress and homelessness, and there were often underlying issues.
He felt that as a professional counsellor he could offer those who were particularly traumatised his help, without charge, if they wanted.
Mr Pietras said at the three churches he sheltered at, including the Wandin Baptist Church, people were more than willing to give him their time.
Having absorbed countless criticisms from loved ones and strangers alike about his circumstances, he hungered for discussions that didn’t revolve around money and survival.
The easy conversations the volunteers offered, often over shared mealtimes, nourished him.
“They showed me there was no shame in my situation and that I had a lot more in me than I thought,” Mr Pietras said.
During daylight hours when the shelters were shut, he usually wandered shopping centres to pass the time.
But on Sundays, when the Wandin Baptist Church kept its doors open all day for the guests, Mr Pietras was able to spend more time with the volunteers and like-minded others in his situation.
He began to feel more comfortable around them as the weeks passed, and started to socialise more often with them outside shelter hours.
Through one of these friendships, Mr Pietras met Bruce Weston, a retired chippy, and father of a long time Stable One volunteer.
Mr Weston subsequently offered to build him a place to live long term, and a caravan on his property to stay in, in the meantime.
Used to having a tenant in the caravan or people who weren’t family members living in his household, Mr Weston said he’d always believed solid relationships were good for people.
“I love company, and I love people’s stories,” he said. “The more we open to each other, the more we realise we’re all pretty much the same, really. We react the same way to things, we get scared, we laugh. We’re not all that different.”
While Mr Weston tinkers away at the bungalow, Mr Pietras has been preparing for job interviews, and is optimistic about the future.
He said he could see himself volunteering at the winter shelter next year.
Reflecting on the 2023 season, and Mr Pietras’s experience, Ms Willetts said the Yarra Valley shelter had fulfilled its goals.
She said it was never just about finding people a place to live. Walking with and caring for people, and strengthening churches to work together for that purpose, were among its major aims.
Though not religious, Mr Pietras said the compassion and fellowship he received changed how he felt about himself, restored his trust in others, and made him aware of a bigger picture.
“I have had strange little things happen, and there seem to be signs,” he said. “It’s almost like God saying ‘I’m here, I’m real. Just open your eyes and look’.”