30-bed shelter could fix Canberra's emergency shelter needs: report

Alice Ferguson’s voice softened when she was asked why she volunteers for Safe Shelter ACT

"When you see these guys ... they have had a hard life," Ms Ferguson said.

"It is a good thing for people to give. It's about sharing and mutual respect."

Alice Ferguson has compiled a report on Safe Shelter attendance in the ACT. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Alice Ferguson has compiled a report on Safe Shelter attendance in the ACT. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Ms Ferguson - a retired librarian - helped write up Safe Shelter ACT's 2018 report which estimated a 30-bed shelter could meet all of Canberra's needs for overnight emergency shelter.

The report also found a doubling of demand for beds as the shelters network started operating seven nights a week in 2018.

Safe Shelter ACT is run out of three Canberra churches: St Columba's Uniting Church and the Salvation Army Canberra City Corps in Braddon and All Saints Anglican Church in Ainslie.

It offers free overnight emergency shelter for men throughout Canberra's winter.

There are at least eight beds available each night with the shelters splitting the open nights between them.

But as summer rolls in, Ms Ferguson said the shelter will have to shut its doors as the organisation believes it will be hard to maintain a solid network of volunteers over the holidays.

Her report indicated the shelter would need to maintain 85 active volunteers each month to run the service.

Ms Ferguson said they were looking to extend their operating season but during summer she said Canberra's homeless had no emergency shelter.

“They’ve got nowhere to go,” she said.

The report also shows the stories behind some of the men needing a bed: kicked out of foster homes or unable to connect with refugee support groups and one man even being robbed of his only jacket.

Ms Ferguson said one man even travelled from the NSW South Coast; he had been sleeping in his car before he learned about the service.

The shelter only had to turn away three men this winter and had to go over capacity at times.

The report also said a 15-bed shelter could meet inner-north Canberra's shelter needs, and by that estimate, a 30-bed shelter could meet all of the capital's needs.

The shelter network's 2018 season, which runs through Canberra's winter from April to September, saw a doubling in demand from 379 bed nights in 2017 to 743 in 2018.

These numbers don't reflect the total number of men using the shelter but the amount of beds used each night during winter.

The report showed 21 guests stayed continuously, some for months, blaming government policies, court orders or employment issues.

Of the 95 total guests who used Safe Shelter ACT this year, 50 stayed for a few days and never returned.

Ms Ferguson said some had needed shelter as they waited for more permanent accommodation while others saw circumstances change or connected with other services.

Ms Ferguson said the trick to the shelters network was simplicity and consistency.

They provided hot soup, crackers and some tea.

“Meals mean a whole lot of legislation; there’s all sorts of regulations,” Ms Ferguson said.

“The secret is we keep things simple and that’s why this works.”

The shelter trained 164 volunteers to run the shelters in 2018 with 70 of them returning from previous years.

“The volunteers get a lot out of this,” she said.

“I find it such a huge responsibility.”

Ms Ferguson said she and the other volunteers got a lot out of it but she remembered a story she head from a priest.

The priest had offered his jacket to a man sleeping rough on Marcus Clarke Street but the man turned it down.

The priest realised he’d only done that to feel good about himself.

“It shows how important it is for us human beings to understand each others dignity,” she said.