By Mikayla Van Loon
When Neal Taylor saw a need for people experiencing homelessness to be walked alongside of rather than just listened to, he started an outreach program known as Holy Fools.
While studying a diploma of community welfare work and on placement at The Dining Room in Croydon, Mr Taylor realised more needed to be done to support people facing hardship.
“We would see people and then work with them and say hello and spend time talking to them and listening to what they had to say but then at the end of the meal we would see them leave and they would often leave having told us some kind of challenge and insurmountable obstacle that they were about to face alone,” he said.
“And it was just realising that, that we needed to do more than just see people, we had to get out and start walking alongside these people.”
In 2009, Mr Taylor went about setting up cafes with other agencies and began chaplaincy work where he would take people experiencing homelessness to court, shopping and doctors appointments.
“[I would] work with them to help them make some better decisions and plan things in their lives and I saw lots of really amazing things and lots of joy but also encountered lots of heartache and lots of bad things that would just make you cry.”
Soon after, Holy Fools was created, offering education, outreach, advocacy and research services.
Mr Taylor said the outreach side of things is the most important, which is done through the Street Angels program and offering material aid.
But just as important is educating people and so Mr Taylor gives presentations to schools, community groups and businesses on how people can access resources and how people are affected by homelessness in the Yarra Ranges.
“One of the things that we really think is important is that a lot of work needs to be done around preventing people from becoming homeless and part of that is actually providing the resources and information for people to get the help they can get.”
Mr Taylor said accessing resources and services is one of the main challenges people face in the Yarra Ranges, as there are no crisis accommodation places in the shire and that is why people gravitate towards the city.
“The biggest thing I guess is the resources out here it’s very low, there’s nowhere to go, there’s no youth crisis space, there’s no domestic shelters for people escaping family violence.”
Wanting to help people feel less alone in their situation, Mr Taylor said one of the things Holy Fools tries to do is normalise homelessness.
“Often people don’t know what to do in that situation, they are so shell shocked about being there that often they are ignorant to what the next step is and what we try to do is normalise the situation with people.”
Mr Taylor estimates that in the Yarra Ranges alone there are 450 people experiencing homelessness and of that number, 50 are rough sleepers.
“In the 11 plus years that we’ve been doing this, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in rough sleepers particularly and people who are experiencing homelessness in all sorts of forms.
“In the Yarra Ranges we’re starting to see more and more rough sleepers and I guess one of the canaries in the mine for us is, we are now starting to see people sleeping in doorways in Lilydale and some other towns of the Yarra Ranges.
“For so long homelessness has been something that’s hidden in the Yarra Ranges but we’re starting to see now that it is becoming more and more evident.”