“We’ve really gone from the shelter model to supporting women to get on with their life,” chief executive Louise Miller Frost told The Southern Cross.
“In 1988 we started with 13 beds and now there are 48 women accommodated each night and up to 30 involved in our outreach programs. We are also currently trying to raise money so that we can open two new cottages which will offer extra beds in our emergency program.”
This year the organisation is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a number of events planned including a sold-out quiz night next month, gala dinner at the Adelaide Town Hall on August 24, a ‘Campaign 30’ fundraiser, selling the commemorative rose bush ‘Bright Spirit’, and writing the history of the centre.
Catherine House was established through a partnership between the Sisters of Mercy, SA Housing Trust and Adelaide City Council to provide accommodation for women 18 years and older (and unaccompanied by children) who were experiencing homelessness.
Longest serving staff member, Deb Ranieri, recalled how the centre operated in the early years.
“When I started in 1992 it was mostly the Sisters of Mercy who were the key administrators, with Sr Anne Gregory in charge and Sr Margaret Tully as her deputy. The kindness and generosity of those women was just amazing and everything they did was for the clients.”
During her first 12 years on the staff Deb worked the evening shift from 12.30am to 8.30am and said the security, policies and procedures were limited.
“I was the only worker on and it was an active shift. I looked after 16 women – we had no security and we had a lot of incidents.
“There was self-harming, women coming back intoxicated, disagreements between women, men hanging around outside…we didn’t have duress alarms back then so I knew the police very well. Sr Anne was always on call and usually I would ring her five or six times a night,” she said.
While operating procedures may have changed, Deb stressed the underlying values instilled by the Mercy Sisters had remained.
“Right from the start Sr Anne and Sr Margaret believed in education and they gave all the women jobs around Catherine House.
“Believing in the women and giving them hope, walking alongside them, empowering them to make choices…they have been the key things throughout the years.”
For Deb the best part of her job is working with the “inspirational” clients.
“I still get emotional to this day about what the women do. They surprise me every single day and it doesn’t have to be a huge achievement.
“The women are so courageous. They come from diverse, chronic backgrounds of violence and mental health issues and yet there is an openness and willingness to share their stories because they trust us.”
Lolita, 28, began using the services at Catherine House in August last year. At the time she was mentally unwell and living in an unstable environment.
“I actually didn’t realise until I came to Catherine House that I was in a really bad place because all that had been normalised.
“It’s been empowering to know that I have power. Even though I am suffering (a depressive episode), the suffering is getting better. Being in this environment where they actually care, actually listen, actually want to help…they do more than any other place I’ve been in.
“Catherine House gave me a voice and said ‘you can do this and we will help you’.”
Besides the accommodation services, Lolita is taking advantage of the education programs run by Catherine House and is currently undertaking the seven week ‘My time, My life, My future’ course. Looking forward she hopes she will be able to live independently and possibly support other women in similar situations.
“Before I came here I had no path, no future. But the future is now much brighter,” she said.
“This place gives you hope.”
For further information about the 30th anniversary celebrations go to www.catherinehouse.org.au
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