New McAuley House is more than a building

Blake Kempthorne knew when he took on project management of McAuley Community Service for Women’s new McAuley House in Pickett St, Footscray; it was more than a bricks and mortar mission. He knew the job would also involve continuing a legacy that began when the Sisters of Mercy started McAuley House (formerly Regina Coeli) 30 years ago.    

He wanted to ensure that the state-of-the-art building would be a ‘home’ and not just an accommodation facility for the women living there. For decades McAuley House has offered women who are homeless, care, compassion, case management and security. Blake’s done his bit to ensure that continues.

Victoria’s first purpose built accommodation and support hub for women who are, or who have been homeless, at 1-3 Pickett St, Footscray, was officially opened on November 30. The $11 million building has been largely funded through the generous support of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea with $4 million from the Victorian Government.

Blake, who also works on other projects within the Sisters of Mercy property portfolio, spent many months looking for the right land, which turned out to be on the site of an old Buddhist temple in Footscray that was then demolished. Clearing the site also involved relocating a 25m high Buddha to a regional Victorian Buddhist temple.

With a background in local government buildings and apartments, Blake joined CEO Jocelyn Bignold , the Board Subcommittee and the architect Paul Hede, on a fact-finding mission around Melbourne researching existing accommodation facilities and services for people who are homeless.

They soon discovered what they wanted to incorporate into the new building and what they wanted to avoid. Light - that was one of the powerful impressions from the tour – an absence of light in many of the older buildings.

Capturing a sense of ‘home’ in the four level building was a challenge, but it began with the kitchen. The current McAuley House kitchen is the epicentre of a lot of community life. Blake said the team worked to replicate that in the new building, creating a sense of open spaces where women can sit and have a coffee and talk to the cook during the meal preparations.

Every one of the 25 bedrooms has its own balcony, which creates a sense of light and space, but is also built with protection around the balcony.

Blake is happy with the job so far. It came in on budget and there were no major problems. He attributes the success of the building’s design to the level of consultation with staff and residents of McAuley House during the planning stages.

“The women were really clear that they wanted colours, bright happy colours and plenty of light. I think we have achieved that for them,” Blake said.

As well as looking at the facilities through the prism of a project manager, Blake found it a life-changing experience.

“I didn’t know much about homelessness at all. What had a powerful impact on me was learning what Jocelyn’s vision is for the women in this house. She wants to help create a small community of women who have access to the right kind of support at the right time, not just through the immediate issues while they are living in Pickett St, but also to look at long-term outcomes. It means they have a community to fall back on if times get tough after they leave,” Blake said.

More than anything the experience has changed how Blake understands homelessness and the issues that often lead people to end up on the streets or at facilities such as McAuley House.

“I used to walk past homeless people on the streets and wonder why someone would choose that life. I realise now I was judging them unfairly and that by the time they make it to the streets they have run out of all options,” Blake said. “Through Joce’s leadership I have since learnt a great deal about couch surfing, living rough and the complex issues that lead people to these places. Having a roof over your head is just the first step to getting back on your feet and places like McAuley Community Services for Women see the bigger picture and try to permanently solve the homelessness life-cycle.”

“I feel sure that Pickett St will be a terrific place for the women who come to live there – that’s my hope.”

December 2016