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Community committed to Sister Janet's vision


Just over a year after the death of Sister Janet Mead, the Adelaide Day Centre for Homeless Persons Inc continues the Mercy Sister’s vision of offering a place that provides people with companionship and a sense of purpose.

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It’s a typical morning at the Adelaide Day Centre, tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the city.  Its inviting garden leads me to a rambling building full of food packages, blankets, mattresses and other essential items that most of us take for granted.

Wholesome food is being prepared in the kitchen, volunteers are packing food parcels and organising deliveries, a couple of men are making candle bases in the workshop and the phone rings incessantly.

From the administration area through to the dining room, kitchen, workshop and storage rooms, the presence of Sr Janet Mead is omnipresent. There are posters, photographs, old record albums and other memorabilia adorning the walls and shelves. And her advocacy for political refugees, First Nations peoples and the oppressed around the globe is evident in the colourful artwork and ornaments.

But her biggest legacy is the Centre’s unique approach to responding to homelessness by providing a community where people can find meaning in their lives.

“The deepest need of any person is to feel useful,” said Centre coordinator Joyce Van der Sman.

“We are here for the people who don’t have the confidence, the ability, the finance or the support to advocate for themselves.

“When they are ready and able to participate in the Centre, which is really like a family, even if they only want to participate a little, we leave the door open for that.

“We never push it but a lot of fellas would say that to give up alcohol or another addiction is hard to do if you haven’t got a job, a routine or people to support you.”

Founded by Sr Janet and Sr Anne Gregory in 1985, the Centre moved from 31 Moore Street to a nearby premise in 1993 (32 Moore Street) and 26 years ago was invited by the Adelaide City Council to establish the Roma Mitchell Garden adjacent to the old Adelaide Gaol.

Each morning participants and volunteers are transported from the Centre to the one-hectare garden where “every fruit and vegetable under the sun” is grown.

The men return to the Centre in time for lunch, often prepared using fresh produce, eggs and honey from the garden. The excess goes into food parcels delivered to thousands of households throughout the year.

In the workshop at the Centre, daily activities include repairing donated furniture and household items for people in need, with requests coming from more than 45 welfare services with which the Centre is affiliated.

Participants also “give back” through making small gifts, cards, candles and wrapping paper which are distributed through the Moore Crafts shop in Topham Mall.

From May to October, the Centre runs a soup van six nights a week, providing not only homemade soup and bread but also jackets and blankets to people sleeping rough.

The commitment to continuing Sr Janet’s social justice advocacy work was evident as one of the volunteers said ‘grace’ before lunch and spoke of the recent court case involving the Barngarla people and a proposed radioactive waste dump at Kimba. Joyce and other volunteers attended a protest outside the court and provided lunch each day for the Barngarla people who had travelled to Adelaide for the case.

“Janet always said ‘my music accidentally gave me an extra voice, so I want to use that voice for those who have none’,” said Joyce.

Over a generous serve of roast chicken and vegetables,
65-year-old Hon, who was born in Hong Kong, told me he “wouldn’t exist” today if he hadn’t come to the Centre three years ago.

“I was sleeping in someone’s garage, I had no home, no job…I was at rock bottom,” he said.

“Since I came here and met Sr Janet and Joyce, my life has changed a lot.

“Before I was not caring about other people, now I feel I have a more spiritual life.

“It’s a different community – we work together because we treat each other as brother and sister.”

Hon said when he first came to the Centre he was “really touched” to see community member Gina Manno kneel down to tie up one of the Indigenous participant’s shoelaces.

“Something in my head said ‘you wouldn’t do that unless it was my brother’,” he said.

Similarly, when Sr Janet asked him if he was warm enough or whether he needed a jumper, Hon was moved because “no one had ever asked me that before”.

“She was a super person,” he said. “The last three years I learned a lot, yes it’s a big difference from being a general manager like I was before, but now I feel more happy, I always want to contribute.”

Hon and other participants and volunteers at the Centre who knew Sr Janet visited her grave at the Mitcham Cemetery and shared memories to mark the anniversary of her death on January 26. They bought hydrangeas, which she loved, to place on the grave.

The Centre has always attracted people through ‘word of mouth’ and prides itself in being non-bureaucratic and staying small with ‘the personal touch’. Early on, Sr Janet and Sr Anne realised that it was difficult to cater for men and women, resulting in Catherine House providing services for women and the Adelaide Day Centre focusing on men.

The need is greater than ever, too, due to the housing shortage and rising cost of living.

Whereas the Centre used to be able to find people temporary accommodation in boarding houses and then permanent low-cost housing, that has become virtually impossible.

“People are living in hotels, double bunking or struggling to hang on to their rental place,” Gina said.

“The demand has shot up, there’s nowhere to house people, it’s just terrible.

“Someone is paying $400 a week for the cheapest hotel room we can find, that’s their whole income from Centrelink, so we’re trying to keep them alive by sending them food.”

“It’s not morally right…we’re setting up systems that complicate it unnecessarily and there’s not the political will to fix it.”

Despite the challenges, Joyce said “every single person here wants Janet’s life, her vision and her work and her presence to continue”.

“We gather strength from each other and from those who support the Centre.

“Every single one of us has been touched by her, so grateful we knew her and loved her, and she loved us,” she said.

As a steady flow of people come in to “contribute” or leave to deliver a food parcel and other assistance, there is no doubting that Sr Janet’s voice is still being heard.

For more information or to make a donation call 8232 0048.


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