Before there was Samaritan House, in Canberra’s north, a group of dedicated people were involved with the running of a men’s hostel in Turner. Decades later, Andrew Herscovitch shares recollections of its work, among other memories of being a Vinnies volunteer between the 1960s and 80s.
Bookmakers are a generous lot. That’s the conclusion Andrew reached after a door-to-door appeal in Sydney for Vinnies some 50 years ago.
At one house the bell was answered by a man still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, who gave Andrew a wad of ten-pound notes. To put the donation into perspective, by today’s standards, it was worth several thousand dollars.
‘Almost apologetically, he said he had had a good day at the races’, Andrew recalls.
‘No surprise in that—it turned out that he was a bookmaker.
‘And he said a receipt wasn’t necessary, but he would take one if I insisted.’
A few years later the mild-mannered, former public servant started volunteering regularly with Vinnies. While working in Sydney’s CBD, he gave up one or two of his lunch hours each week to provide personal or material support for struggling individuals and families.
The conference undertaking this work was based at the Marist Chapel in Sydney.
Andrew also belonged for a short time to a parish conference at Summer Hill, in Sydney’s west.
Much of his motivation came from several people challenging his views on poverty.
‘I was always ranting about social justice issues. But was I doing anything practical about it?
‘It was a fair question.’
Andrew moved to Canberra in 1969. He renewed his ties with Vinnies in 1973, joining the St Martin of Tours Conference.
Named after a French saint, the conference was responsible for running a men’s shelter in the inner-northern suburb of Turner. A group of dedicated volunteers took turns staying overnight at the hostel, which opened from 5pm daily.
‘The shelter could provide beds for up to 24 men—30 at a pinch’, Andrew says.
A meal was also served, not only to the men staying overnight, but also to others who needed it.
Volunteers from various parish conferences were rostered to assist with the work.
The shelter was able to expand its services and become more than a temporary abode, when new legislation known as the Homeless Persons Assistance Act provided Commonwealth funding for a full-time social welfare officer from the mid-1970s.
‘The person who was appointed to this position actively supported the guests in any number of ways, not least in their quest for housing. He actively intervened on their behalf with housing authorities in the ACT,’ Andrew recalls.
The social welfare officer also assisted guests with looking for work, through liaising with the (then) Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) and private employers.
‘In addition to that, he helped some guests manage their income by occasionally acting as a trustee until their circumstances stabilised.’
While the St Martin of Tours Conference was harmonious most of the time, there were differences of opinion over whether some guests needed to be excluded, Andrew says.
In any case, they were only shut out for a short period.
‘It was not to penalise people in the hope that they would mend their ways.
‘More important was the welfare of other guests, whose security and ability to get a decent night’s sleep could be compromised if people were heavily affected by alcohol, or behaving aggressively.’
Andrew was saddened by the shelter’s closure in the mid-1980s – a sense of camaraderie among its volunteers and guests, some of whom became firm friends, was a rewarding aspect of the work.
The decision to shut down the shelter was largely because of a fall in the number of people who relied on it.
‘There were differences of opinion at times between the St Martins of Tours Conference and the wider Society in the archdiocese’, Andrew says.
‘The conference was naturally focussed on the needs of the shelter and the men it served.
‘And archdiocesan views were understandably influenced by the perspective of the wider Vinnies’ family.
‘It is fair to say that some members of parish conferences felt that the shelter relied heavily on them, and that they were already overstretched by their own work in their local areas.’
A new shelter known as Samaritan House was established many years later at Hackett. It provides crisis accommodation for single men in the ACT, and experiences a huge demand for its 12 bedrooms.
Andrew has recently resumed volunteer work with the Society. He can now be found assisting his cousin Mike Moran, the Society’s National Council archivist, in Canberra a couple of days a week.
Belinda Cranston is Media Adviser at the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council office