Ballina’s homeless can now access personal support

Ballina has a spectacular location, sitting at the mouth of the Richmond River and providing a base for visitors flocking to the pristine beaches, from Angel's Flat Rock to Lennox Head and up to Byron Bay whose name is now included in the flight destination: Ballina Byron Gateway Airport.

But there is a lesser known reality to life in Ballina (and for that matter, Byron Bay) – it has one of the state’s highest homelessness rates. According to the last Census more than 500 people in the Ballina Local Government Area were either homeless or at risk of experiencing homelessness. They bed down in parks and beach dunes, the backs of cars, in budget caravan parks and boarding houses, or couch surf in overcrowded households. All of this is unseen by visitors and most locals who regard the area as a piece of sub-tropical paradise.

Aware of the pressing need to help people on the margins recover some dignity in their lives, the St Vincent de Paul Society recently opened a weekday drop-in service offering a range of personal care services. These include light refreshments, showering facilities, outdoor space for socialising, computer access, medical and nursing care, Centrelink engagement service, legal and housing support, and psychological and counselling services.

The well located service is named Mary’s Place in honour of Aileen Mary Delaney who made a generous bequest to the Society.

Adjacent to Mary’s Place but independently accessed is Harmony House, owned by, and leased from, Ballina Parish. The threebedroom service provides accommodation for residents transitioning back into community living after facing challenges that may have included homelessness. Harmony House retains its original name but has been fully refurbished and upgraded.

“Research shows that Ballina experiences significant levels of disadvantage compared to NSW generally in terms of income, education and employment opportunities,” said Niamh Mannion, Executive Director Vinnies Services.

“Members of St Francis Xavier Conference Ballina were active supporters of the project, and helped generate community backing for its development. Ballina Shire Council backed the project from the start, as did Ballina MP Tamara Smith, and local service clubs and businesses.

“It has been a wonderful community endeavour, with everyone recognising the need for a service of this kind. Living rough is a terrible experience, exposing people to violence, robbery, sexual assault and a loss of personal dignity that is hard to recover from.

“Vinnies has a long history of supporting vulnerable community members, and this service is well placed to undertake some wonderful work.”

Mary’s Place is the latest such service run by Vinnies on the Far North Coast of NSW, following the successful establishment of Fred’s Place in Tweed Heads and Pete’s Place in Coffs Harbour. These services are assisting up to 90 people each day.