Working and living at the intersection of the housed and the homeless, the haves and the have-nots, also means standing between love and hate. That’s a very fine line, says Jon Owen, Pastor and CEO of Wayside Chapel. But as long as he and his colleagues, whose jobs have been made vastly more difficult by the COVID-19 crisis, always act with love, then they will walk this line with confidence.
“Many people come through our doors, driven to despair by self-hatred,” Jon says. “We help them to turn themselves around by meeting that hatred with love.”
The doors of Jon’s Wayside Chapel – which provides vital sustenance for Sydney’s homeless community in the form of food, clothing, showers, toiletries, counselling, housing, health, legal and financial support, and, most importantly, a safe space that provides unconditional love and care – have not been open as much as needed during the pandemic.
But his staff have innovated and pivoted, finding new ways to help those that most need it. Along the way they have witnessed a fleeting glimpse of a society without homelessness.
Now, more than ever, the Wayside Chapel needs the support of businesses and individuals, particularly via the fun and healthy fundraising event known as Long Walk Home 2020 (26 Oct to 1 Nov).
We spoke with the Pastor about the unique challenges of creating a tight community in a socially distanced world.
Q. Why is community so important to us as humans?
Jon: At Wayside Chapel, we believe the smallest human unit is two. We’re all hard-wired for connection. We get our sense of security, safety and identity through our community. An Aboriginal lady once said to me. “You are who you eat with”. I believe that! I am who I am because of who we all are. Community is the centre of everything we are as humans.
Q. What has been the impact of the pandemic on the Wayside Chapel community?
Jon: The pandemic has emptied dinner tables. We’re all feeling that loss of identity. Our sense of self has taken a hit. It’s not just the most vulnerable, it’s all of us. We’ve always had extended communities of cousins and uncles and aunts and friends. Not being able to connect has placed significant amounts of pressure on us.
So naturally, there is an increase in anxiety, disconnection and loneliness. Mother Teresa used to say loneliness is the leprosy of the West. This pandemic has only served to heighten that sense.
Q. And how has that affected the work of the Wayside Chapel?
Jon: It has had a big impact on the way we do service delivery, because if loneliness is a leprosy, the Wayside mission is about creating community. We’ve always been able to create community in a specific location, in a space together. But we can’t do that now, particularly when many people who are sleeping rough might be immunocompromised. The virus could have a devastating effect.
So, we completely changed the way we operate. Two thirds of our frontline workers now visit people in their homes and visit people on the streets. They can’t come to us, so we go to them. We now do a significant amount of work supporting people with continuity of care wherever they might be.
Q. Has homelessness increased during the pandemic?
Jon: Actually, for a few wonderful days there was no homelessness! Last year, at the start of the Long Walk Home, I said we dream of an Australia in which nobody sleeps rough. And because the government participated with not-for-profits to take people off the streets and put them into hotel rooms as a pandemic precaution, we had a tiny little window in which that dream became a reality! As a society, we actually solved homelessness for a minute.
But yes, there is a lot of work for us to do. No one ever grows up saying they want to be homeless. It always happens because of a breakdown in family and community, and there’s plenty of breakdown happening right now. At the heart of the issue of homelessness is a broken heart.
Q. Has the Wayside Chapel had to innovate to continue operating?
Jon: Absolutely. A year or two ago we had an innovation team and they had all of these plans. We looked at the plans and said, “Wouldn’t that be lovely to do, one day!” The things we once thought were impossible have now had to become very real.
We have learned so much about how to adapt. We’ve proven to ourselves that we can do this. Now we’re in this in-between time, we’re in between the old certainty and the new reality. We’re in uncertainty. But what we’ve learned through the uncertainty is that we can make things happen a lot quicker than we ever dared dream possible. That’s why I’m excited and that’s what I take heart in.
Q. Can you describe the change you see in people once they become a part of your community?
Jon: We don’t turn people around. People turn themselves around. When they first come into Wayside Chapel, it’s usually on the worst day of their life. They’re usually utterly convinced that what they’re experiencing is completely unique and nobody will understand. Usually their lives are collapsing.
We know that when their question changes from “What can you give me?” to “How can I help?”, something good is about to happen. That’s the moment they realise there are people here that are with them and for them. We’re not here to try and convince people of anything. We just help and encourage them to take baby steps towards life and health. We say that nobody is a problem to be solved, instead they’re a person to be met.
Q. With large gatherings likely not allowed, what are the Christmas plans for Wayside Chapel this year?
Jon: We’re hopefully going to be able to have some form of gathering, but it will be subject to public health orders. What we are going to do is take Christmas away from December 25 and instead do Christmas over a week. If we can have Christmas over a week we make sure nobody misses out. Every day, we’re going to ham it up … pun intended. In every possible way, over Christmas we’re going to tell people they’re loved.
Q. How can we, the public, help with your mission?
Jon: One way is to walk or donate to the Long Walk Home. We’ve also got a Donate a Plate Christmas campaign in December. And finally, if you live in a neighbourhood where there are people who are sleeping on corners or doing it tough, even if you’ve got a neighbour who’s living alone, remember you are who you eat with. Invite someone to your table.
We’re a charity that’s heavily reliant on the generosity of the public, and all we can do right now is stay true to our mission. All we can do is continue to serve people as they come, and as we find them. What we do in the trenches is a statement of our deepest core values.
IAG is a major supporter of Wayside Chapel's Long Walk Home, as it aligns perfectly with the company’s values.
“At NRMA Insurance we’re guided by the purpose of our parent company IAG, ‘to make your world a safer place’. Our purpose has never been so relevant to our people, customers, communities and shareholders,” says Mark Milliner, CEO, Australia Division (owner of NRMA Insurance).
“We are supporting community building within our organisation by adapting our use of technology and our ways of working to enable community and connection, despite physical separation. This is further enabled through our Community Connection program, which supports our employees who want to give back to the community through volunteering, fundraising and workplace giving.
“The Long Walk Home is very closely linked to our purpose. It offers our people, customers and communities an opportunity to actively support those experiencing homelessness by putting themselves in their shoes for the 28km walk. It also enables us all to highlight the important issue of homelessness to society at large.”
PwC has also pledged its people to Wayside Chapel’s purpose.
"Through our purpose PwC commits to solving important problems, and homelessness has been high on our priority list for the last few years,” says Steve Billingham, PwC Partner and Global Relationship Partner for IAG.
“The opportunity to support the Long Walk Home alongside one of our most important clients and a key strategic partner is fabulous. We are committed to helping make it a great success, again.
“Personally, I have been involved in supporting the homeless for many years, initially through the Oasis Youth Project and more recently the Long Walk Home. I think in a year of massive upheaval, when perhaps we worry a bit more about things nearer to home, we also need to double down our focus on those less fortunate to ensure they get the help they need.
“Last year I really enjoyed the walk and the opportunity to meet volunteers, members and so many others, all focused on helping and having some fun on the way. I’m looking forward to the walk!"
“Seeing how Jon Owen and the Wayside Chapel team has persevered through this global pandemic, it is very clear that good things happen when you lead from a place of purpose and love – this is what Jon and the good people of Wayside do best,” says Drew Friedman, Account Director at Salesforce.
“In my opinion, homelessness shouldn't exist at all, so I'm very proud of our Salesforce team of 96 participants. We've surpassed our fundraising goal of AU$50,000, hitting AU$54,000 this week – more than double the amount we raised last year.
“I am also thankful to be able to partner with companies like PwC and IAG on this important initiative, because as our CEO and Co-Founder Marc Benioff says, ‘business is the greatest platform for change’.
“The event overall has so far raised more than AU$930,000 – when three major organisations like ours and a community of purpose-led individuals can work with a group like Wayside, I believe we can take big strides.”
We’re walking with Wayside Chapel to help people living on the streets. Almost 100 Salesforce participants are aiming to raise more than $50,000. You can still donate now – just $50 will provide a care pack and hot meal for a person in crisis.
Our header image is from last year’s Long Walk Home – when we all got to walk the 28km as a group in one day.