McAuley Community Services for Women works across the fields of family violence, homelessness and mental health.

    The organisations offers three programs for women and their children to help them rebuild their lives:

    Thirty years ago, a non-descript home in Footscray in Melbourne’s west, two Sisters of Mercy, Angela Reed and Carole Carmody waited with a mix of excitement and apprehension for the arrival of the first client of the new Mercy Care service.

    Today there is a major transition; the house is to be demolished, but the Sisters of Mercy have donated the land to McAuley. A new future will be created, through new funding,12 transitional living apartments for women and children will be built and is expected to open in August 2022.

    An event was held last year to both a celebration of service and the work done to support thousands of women and children over the years and a farewell to the building which contains so many stories.

    Standing at the front gate welcoming all the guests to the event long-standing worker, Dawn. She had joined Mercy Care as a volunteer back in those early days when there was no professional workforce, and volunteers, many of whom were also holding down full-time jobs, slept at the house overnight.

    Dawn is the keeper of many of those stories: of the tree, she and Carole planted at the front garden; of all the symbols in the hand-painted mural running around the two units at the back (named for Sr Sheila and Sr Wilma); and the three-week project to create it together with women and children.

    Dawn still works at McAuley Care. The stories of the women and children resonated with her because she too has lived with family violence. ‘I didn’t know it had a name, or realise what it meant until women told me their stories and I knew they were mine,’ Dawn says. ‘McAuley Care is my home, and even though I’ve worked here 17 years, I never want to leave.’

    Natalie’s Journey – “At last I can breath.”

    “Are you kidding me?” was Natalie’s first response when she was contacted by McAuley housing worker Carolyn and asked if she’d consider moving into the new apartment complex.

    After years of transient housing and homelessness, she still can’t get her head around the idea that she now has her own place and can, at last, make long term plans.

    It’s another step forward in her long journey of recovery from mental health challenges, homelessness and debilitating physical injury.

    Natalie had been a circus performer, travelling extensively until developing a severe hip injury associated with her role doing hula hoop and juggling.

    Multiple surgeries and interventions failed to help her cope with the physical demands, and she realised she was no longer loving it, had given it a good go, but now needed to stop.

    She’d never really had stable housing over that time, and ended up living in a share house. With the loss of her identity and the sense of community associated with the circus, she found herself getting more and more depressed and isolated. With little help and no clear diagnosis, Natalie felt more and more that everything was too much and overwhelming, and she attempted to take her own life.

    Devastatingly, while she was in hospital recovering, her flatmates delivered another blow by kicking her out. Effectively homeless, she stayed for four weeks in the mental health facility until a friend offered to let her stay on her couch, while a referral for McAuley House was made.

    As a gay woman, Natalie worried that her sexual orientation would be a problem given that McAuley is a faith-based organisation. She was reassured in her first contact with us that this would definitely not be an issue, and within a few weeks, moved into a room of her own at our House in Footscray.

    ‘The room was so beautifully set out for me when I came. There were toiletries, pyjamas and my bed was made,’ Natalie recalls. ‘At last I felt I could breathe.’

    In the first week, Natalie mainly just slept, and was grateful to be left to adjust at her own pace. She loved the beautiful and light-filled spaces, and the sunshine coming through the stairwells was one of her favourite things.

    ‘Everything felt like a gift, but I didn’t have to “deserve” it,’ she says. “I was already putting pressure enough on myself…I didn’t need pressure from anyone else if I was having a bad week.’” The support was gentle but always there. “If I said I hadn’t felt able to ring a doctor, someone would say, how about I make the call for you? My progress was slow but I really appreciated as well that no one kept expecting a lot of gratefulness all the time – it’s tiring!”

    Natalie was aware that, “I might be living in the nicest women’s shelter – but I’m still homeless.”

    After a year living at McAuley House, Natalie moved into transitional housing. She was still aware of the vulnerability of her housing situation and the lack of security, so the offer to move to the Footscray development was “amazing”. “It was already a beautiful apartment, but now I can start making it my own, and do things like buy furniture. I still can’t get my head around the idea that I never have to leave!”


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