Bendigo Winter Night Shelter is 10 guests, 14 churches, 260 volunteers, 92 nights

SHELTER: Fourteen churches have signed up to host guests experiencing homelessness. Picture: GLENN DANIELS
SHELTER: Fourteen churches have signed up to host guests experiencing homelessness. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Don has been through three big disasters. Every 10 years a calamity like a fire or a storm has come through and wiped him clean. He moved to Bendigo after the third, when Cyclone Debbie came through his northern NSW town and took off his roof.

He lived with his son in Bendigo. But their residency ended when the real estate sold the house.

Since then Don has been without a home.

He was going out gold prospecting initially, camping out for 10 days at a time, but when January's heatwave came a dicky heart put him in hospital.

Since then Don been sleeping out in his tent at around the place, sometimes in Huntly or Maiden Gully.

Don was one of seven men and women staying at Bendigo Baptist Church one night this week. The church is one of 14 in Bendigo to throw open its doors to host up to 10 people experiencing homelessness this winter for the Winter Night Shelter Program.

Don has been at the Winter Night Shelter since it first began. He'd like to see more of it, or things like it, a place to spend time during the day would be especially useful.

This year is the first the Night Shelter has run in the city.

Guests are referred to the program from one of several agencies within the community. They're given a hot dinner, a bed to sleep and breakfast, each night at a different church.

They're also give dignity.

Winter Night Shelter coordinator Lachlan Weir has seen guests transform in the past few months.

Don reads at the Bendigo Winter Night Shelter. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Don reads at the Bendigo Winter Night Shelter. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Running the program, he's learnt how much you can change someone's life.

"Often our guests came to us and they were cold, or hungry, they were emotionally tired, physically tired," Mr Weir said.

"Then once we've cared for them for a while, they're well slept, they're well fed, they've got a bit of weight off their chest, they've had someone to talk to. They've really transformed, you see really positive results."

The changes have been physical, emotional and social.

"A lot of these people were isolated, they had no one to turn to, no friends, nothing," Mr Weir said.

"Now there's a real camaraderie in the group, they all support each other, they're all good friends, they drop around to each others' places, and they sort of give that support.

Brad has been homeless of and on since he started working. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Brad has been homeless of and on since he started working. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

"And we've built those relationships between the guests and ourselves, and also just with the [other] volunteers."

Guest Chris has been living in his car since he was evicted in January. He was served a 120 day notice to vacate his home, but struggled to find a new place to live while battling depression.

It's been hard.

"It's a tough gig, it's a very tough gig. Especially if you're battling demons, and mental illnesses, like clinical depression, anxiety and PTSD, it's exhausting," he said.

"A lot of people don't understand that mental illness also manifests in a physical sense."

It's been a hard road, but things are starting to turn around. On a new medication, Chris is feeling good about himself for the first time in years.

Since coming to the Winter Night Shelter he's been eating properly. Sleep is still a bit of an issue, but he has medication for that and has a bed in a warm room.

And, Chris said, you've just got to keep pushing forward.

The structure has provided respite, and social interaction. Volunteers have shown compassion, empathy and altruism, he said.

Chris is confident that this time he will recover for good, with the right medication, good diet, exercise and meditation.

HELPING HANDS: A Winter Night Shelter volunteer works in the kitchen of Bendigo Baptist Church. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

HELPING HANDS: A Winter Night Shelter volunteer works in the kitchen of Bendigo Baptist Church. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Guests arrive at the night's church at 6pm, after meeting at a central location in Bendigo. At 7pm they eat dinner, provided by volunteers.

After that some talk, play board games, charge phones, smoke, or just sleep.

The volunteer shift changes at 10pm. Three volunteers stay the night, two awake at all times.

The safety the program offers can make a huge difference for guests. Many have been assaulted multiple times sleeping out in public, or mistreated. The churches are a place where they can relax.

Maddz had spent the last four nights in her car when we spoke. She'd just left a house-share, after a disagreement with another tenant, sick of the drugs and the alcohol.

Since her parents kicked her out of home aged 16, Maddz has slept on the streets, couch surfed, and lived in house-share situations off and on

A number of conditions mean Maddz is on the Disability Support Pension. She's struggled to find permanent accommodation partly by choice, and party because there simply are not enough rentals affordable for people on Centrelink, or without a rental history.

Maddz said she struggled to access services, because there was not enough funding for people her age.

When she was younger she could get into places like Headspace. But now she can't get in, because funding mostly goes to people 25 and under.

SHARING TOGETHER: Guests enjoy a meal at Bendigo Baptist Church. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

SHARING TOGETHER: Guests enjoy a meal at Bendigo Baptist Church. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Guest Brad has been homeless on and off since he started work. A long term relationship left him without rental references.

Born in Bendigo, Brad left at about 23. He came back a few months ago - 20 years later - after his appendix blew up, nearly killing him.

Without a licence though, and without being able to afford to get it back, it's hard to organise himself to get to work for the dole, let alone get a job, he said.

He's taking small steps though. One of which has been giving up drinking, half his problem, he said.

Brad would be sleeping in a stadium, or out bush if he wasn't at the night shelter. But long term, he doesn't want to be homeless.

"To be honest, someone who looks as ugly as me and as big as me I don't have that much problem with [sleeping out]. You've got to drink to put yourself to sleep, you don't give it too much thought," he said.

"But when you actually stop drinking and stop using drugs it's the way people look at you.

"And it's like, 'Yeah I know I'm on the streets, but I'd rather be doing this than say sitting out in front of a supermarket begging for money'."

Two months into the three month program, the Winter Night Shelter committee has begun to think about the future.

Mr Weir said they would like to see it continue next winter, perhaps with more coordination to reach more people.

Part of that might involve more cooperation between what the services can do, and what the community can do, he said.

Services can often act independently, but it takes the community to help with homelessness, he said

"It really takes the community to address these issues. These people need support, that's what they need," Mr Weir said.

"They need support, they need people there who are going to help them through their issues. They can't do it alone, so that's where something like this can work.

"We engage the church, we engage the broader community and we can really coordinate between other services and help people find what it is that they need to solve their problems, and also provide encouragement and support so they can continue in that service."

RESPONSE: About 280 people signed up to volunteer with the Bendigo Winter Night Shelter. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

RESPONSE: About 280 people signed up to volunteer with the Bendigo Winter Night Shelter. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Winter Night Shelter committee member Matt Parkinson said he'd discovered through the program that when you talk about homelessness, not everyone engages.

But when you say you're doing something about it, people engage.

About 260 volunteers signed up to help run the program this year.

The Winter Night Shelter is entering its final stage for 2019, as two of the three winter months have passed.

Community members looking to help can think about volunteering next year, or helping with the fundraising.

But those still looking for help can. Coming from the churches' perspective, "Personally we encourage prayer", Mr Weir said.