How McAuley Community Services for Women are managing in this time of COVID-19 – and some of what the future may bring
As an organisation supporting women who’ve experienced homelessness and/or family violence, the current health emergency has thrown up unique challenges.
Our approach to working with women and their children is normally about overcoming — not enforcing — isolation.
Building connections, not distance.
Creating a vibrant community hub at our McAuley Houses in Footscray and Ballarat — not locking it down and restricting access.
McAuley is an essential service – and our clients are vulnerable to the impact of the virus
Our important work of providing safety and connection for women and children facing family violence and homelessness must continue.
The nature of the virus presents extra challenges to those we support. In times of crisis, home is even less safe for those in abusive relationships. Family violence becomes more frequent and severe. The very steps needed to contain the virus – social distancing and isolation – heighten these risks, especially when other stresses such as unemployment and financial strain are looming.
The impact of the virus is also difficult for women who have been homeless and live at our McAuley House. Many have past experiences of trauma and mental illness, their physical health may have been compromised, and they are more vulnerable to infection. They can also find it harder to deal with the changed behaviours and routines that are required in order to keep the virus in check.
Some of our services, such as our regular community lunches and our outreach work, have been modified in line with government guidelines to contain the disease. Where possible many staff are working remotely and we have suspended the work of most of our valued volunteers, to protect their wellbeing at this time.
A look on the bright side
Things haven’t been all doom and gloom. New ways of working are being identified. Some of them are opening surprising possibilities, in fact improvements to services that are likely to continue long after the virus is contained.
A psychologist, for example, has been based at McAuley House, funded through the NorthWest Primary Health Network. Her counselling sessions have been crucial in addressing underlying trauma; 80 % of women living there have mental health issues, and more than 40% have experienced childhood or sexual abuse. These vital sessions have continued online, keeping the connection going and ensuring those who are now living in the community are less alone.
Our volunteer tutoring program was initially suspended when the state of emergency was declared. It was set up to address education gaps and disruption which arise when children move constantly around with their mums to escape family violence. We knew that children were missing weeks or months of schooling and often falling behind. Volunteer tutors worked with the kids at their homes or in refuges to prevent complete disengagement from school.
After pausing the program, we set our mind to how it might continue. Again, online options will come to the rescue. And an added spin-off will be, once set up, the tutoring (and the strong relationship with their tutor) can continue even if the family moves again or settles into a regional area. It wasn’t how we initially envisaged the program, but we can now see it being utilised across the state – following the child and their individual needs, not confined to any one location.
Our Skills for Life program has also been challenged by the restrictions on face-to-face contact – especially with a large cohort of women for whom English is not their first language. Through, using Zoom we’ve continued to offer meditation, book clubs and reading groups and Bollywood, with plans to expand still further in the coming months.
Our staff have remained focused on their work and are determined to provide our usual level of support and care. We have been enormously proud of their professionalism and determination.
And as usual, the ISMAPNG community of Sisters has provided our greatest supporters with letters of concern and encouragement as well as overwhelmingly generous donations continuing to arrive on an almost daily basis. We are always humbled and so grateful to for the ongoing encouragement and support we receive.
It would be an overstatement, of course, to say that all has been smooth sailing. We face an ongoing challenge to balance the needs of women living in communal settings, their increased anxieties, their rights to autonomy, and their safety and wellbeing as well as that of our staff. This has required careful monitoring, extra provisions for cleaning, and increased staffing costs when anyone has had to self-isolate because of close contact with the virus.
Jocelyn Bignold OAM – CEO
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