On Wednesday 21 August 2019, Yarra Ranges Council demanded that Stable One cease sheltering rough sleepers in church buildings. How did it come to this?

Stable One is what we would call a micro-charity, with one full time staff member and a volunteer board. But Stable One is, in the words of one of its guests, a “godsend”. Stable One facilitates a winter shelter program which allows ‘rough sleepers’ to take shelter in a church building overnight during the winter months. Multiple churches (usually seven churches in a local area) take turns providing shelter. A bus transports guests from a central location to that night’s particular shelter. No-one is sure how many guests will show up on any particular night. Volunteers attend the shelter and provide guests with a hot meal and the opportunity for good conversation.

Guests are provided with the opportunity to lay on a stretcher bed and sleep, men segregated from women. A number of the volunteers remain on site and are required to be awake all night to supervise and ensure that all in attendance are safe.

Being a guest with the winter shelter, but it is safe, warm and dry – it beats rough sleeping, which is the alternative for that night.

So why would a Council try to stop them?

In a genuine attempt to do the right thing, Stable One sought some guidance from Council about what permits might be required in order to be operating within relevant planning and building legislation. Council, however, took the view that the church buildings would need to be upgraded to the standards of an “accommodation” building.

This is cost-prohibitive for some of the churches, many of which would still have separate outdoor toilet facilities and no functioning kitchen or bathroom. Many of them would require renovation in order to comply with the relevant standards.

Ironically, Council’s concern is that the buildings may not be ‘safe’ for those sleeping there overnight. But where your only alternative is sleeping on the street, a church seems very safe – no doubt being warm and dry on a winter night could save lives.

What can be done?

There are so many ways to fix this issue - it’s hard to imagine why we ended up here in the first place.

  • Common sense interpretation of the rules. Plain and simple, the provision of 13 nights’ shelter in a church building is no different to having a youth group sleepover. It doesn’t turn a church building into an accommodation building.
  • Council could just back off. Even if churches were in breach of some technical rule (which they’re not), Council could choose to spend its enforcement efforts on buildings which are actually dangerous rather than disrupting a micro charity from sheltering the homeless.
  • Council could issue temporary permits for churches each year. Just as it can in crisis situations, Council could issue a temporary permit each year to the churches which participate each year. Being homeless is a crisis for those affected. This is a way that Council could help instead of hinder.
  • The VBA could clarify its advice regarding the standing of this kind of crisis shelter or issue a ruling for the benefit of Stable One (and other charities who might choose to catch the vision). VBA appear to be claiming that Yarra Ranges Council took a ‘strict interpretation’ of its advice – now would be a good time to clarify.
  • Stable One could defy Council and take the matter before the Building Appeals Board. As a body with the ability to allow ‘alternative solutions’ to compliance with building regulations, the Building Appeals Board would be an ideal body to step in and make a ruling. However, for the matter to get to the Building Appeals Board, Council would have to issue a Building Order against one of the participating churches – this requires one of the churches to risk prosecution just so that they can shelter the homeless!
  • The Victorian Government could arrange for an urgent amendment to the Building Regulations in order to clarify that the provision of shelter in a crisis does not require someone to obtain a re-classification of their buildings.

We commend Stable One for another creative way to respond to a part of Melbourne’s homelessness problems. Let’s hope that government can find a way to assist too.