Acts of Mercy
It’s hard, maybe even impossible for most of us to understand what it is to be homeless – even if you live in community with homeless women. That’s certainly Angela Reed’s experience. For many of her early years as a Sister of Mercy, Angela worked in and eventually managed Mercy services for women who were homeless. Those women had few choices – it was the bed and hospitality offered by the Sisters, or the street.
For many women who use our services, now called McAuley Community Services for Women, things haven’t changed. They still have no home, except McAuley Care’s refuges and safe house, if they are fleeing family violence and McAuley House, for medium term accommodation, if they are homeless because of family violence or suffering from a mental illness or have other complex needs.
Another thing Angela Reed recalls, which has remained, is the sense of welcome, hospitality and care that Mercy services provided to the women and their children, often around the kitchen table. “A warm cuppa and a chat can soothe the soul,” she said.
Angela’s first ‘exposure’ to homelessness was not long after she joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1994. Part of her formation involved working in a ministry and Angela went to the Bethlehem Community for homeless women in Fitzroy.
“I was in my early 20s and I was scared because I had never known anyone who was homeless and I had a lot of misconceptions. And there were certainly some characters, but I soon realised that these women were very vulnerable and that they were viewed differently to homeless men, who it is always assumed have just fallen on hard times,” Angela said.
“I remember one day a woman arrived straight from hospital where she had given birth. She was crying because authorities had her baby taken away from her and put into foster care and she had no home to go to. I spent the day around the kitchen table just listening to her desperate sadness and making tea for her while she cried. Sometimes that’s all you can do,” she said.
In 1999 Angela went to live and volunteer at Regina Coeli (now McAuley House) with four other Sisters of Mercy. It was an important time in the development of the Mercy ‘spirit’ that lay staff strive to continue today.
“We based our care of the women around a saying: ‘we welcome her, we call her by name and we mark the significant events in her life’,” Angela said. “That’s about making sure that this person doesn’t just turn up with a long history and paperwork. We look at the person, use her name and open ourselves up to a relationship with that person who is suffering.”
After a year at Regina Coeli Angela became the coordinator at Mercy Care (now called McAuley Care) and stayed there for seven years. They were important years and saw the development of services for children who had also been forced to flee home with their mother because of family violence.
“We never saw the children as add ons to the mother. They were people in their own right who needed significant care. It was at that stage we set up the children’s play therapy room and began our relationship with the Royal Children’s Hospital.”
Angela left McAuley Care in 2007 and has worked for several years in the anti-trafficking movement. Her years working with homeless women taught her that there is never one cause, or pathway to homelessness.
“Homelessness is complex because no woman presents to a service with a single issue. It is myriad issues including relationships, violence, mental and or physical health, poverty, addiction, family history and a range of other things. If a woman has to manage one, or several of these problems, then she can become very, very vulnerable. It is ‘Mercy’ that we offer at this time. The simple act of listening and being attentive to a woman’s needs and offering what we can.”