Alma Street’s grace and mercy

The men's hostel on Alma Street.

By Duncan Evans

The St Vincent de Paul men’s hostel on Rockhampton’s Alma Street offers some grace and mercy to Central Queenslanders doing it tough in an era of pandemic lockdowns, uncertain employment and a punishing rental market.

The 15-bed shelter provides temporary accommodation and a range of critical support services to homeless men aged 18 and over from the Capricornia region.

Sadly, the beds are full each night, a reflection of the region’s escalating homelessness emergency.

A rental crisis, coupled with a pandemic and the standard triggers for homelessness such as mental illness and substance use disorders, are all contributing factors that have pushed many of Rockhampton’s support providers to full capacity.

According to the Queensland government’s statistician’s office within Queensland treasury, there were 372 homeless persons in the Rockhampton region, or 46.8 homeless persons per 10,000 persons, as of the 2016 Census. This is slightly higher than the rest of Queensland, which measured 45.6 homeless persons per 10,000 persons, or 21,715 homeless persons from a population base of 4,760,598.

The figures will likely be higher at the next census.

Cheryl Russell is the Coordinator for Central Queensland Housing and Homelessness with the St Vincent de Paul Society and she spoke with CQ Today about the operations of the hostel.

“We allow our guests to have meals and accommodation for basically however long they need,” she said.

“And they have support on site. We assist them in getting housing in the community, generally through the Department of Housing, but if not, through private rentals and that sort of thing.

“We also deliver a mobile support program, so what that means is anyone who is sleeping rough, they do have a support network there that we can help with referral sources.”

The hostel is partly funded by the state government and partly by the Catholic church.

It’s a 24/7 operation run by nine full-time staff.

Securing a bed at the hostel is a matter of first-come first-served.

“We can’t really operate under a waiting list sort of approach, because it is who needs it at that time,” Ms Russell said.

“The idea of us is to assist them to get into permanent housing. It’s temporary crisis accommodation.”

Visitors are treated to three meals a day plus morning and afternoon tea.

“We’ve got a full working kitchen down the back with a chef,” Ms Russell said.

“We also provide on-site activities as well to help people keep motivated, so they’re not just sitting and dwelling on what’s going on.”

Healthcare professionals regularly visit the site to offer mental health services to residents. Other professional support workers, from organisations such as Centrelink, also attend the shelter to offer a wide range of services.

“Everybody that lives here does have an individual plan that they need assistance with,” Ms Russell said.

“Everyone does get that holistic type servicing. So whatever the needs are, we link up with our support workers, we’ll link up with the referral sources that they need, to be able to keep moving forward.”

Ms Russell is at the coalface and has tracked the shifts and changes in the make-up of homelessness over the last few months. At the moment, she says the rental crisis is the chief factor propelling homelessness across the region.

“Before this, it would have been probably mental health and drug and alcohol abuse. But now, it is the rental crisis. We’re having a lot of transient people, who drive their cars from one place to another and then find themselves in a spot and they’ve got nowhere to go. That has been a definite increase since at least September or October last year.”

The Alma Street hostel is an unassuming brick structure with a concrete path leading up to a security door. Its ordinary exterior belies the spiritual majesty encased within it, as rich and opulent as any grand cathedral.