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Calls for new funding model, improved infrastructure for Gippsland Neighbourhood House 'super centre'

By Rachael Lucas, Wednesday August 5, 2020 - 08:42 EST
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Leanne Jennings with volunteers from the Sikh community, who cooked meals at the Neighbourhood House during the East Gippsland fires. - ABC

Drought, fire, COVID-19 and recession have turned the humble community dwelling that is the Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House — once used for workshops and classes — into an outreach depot.



Food donations, emergency relief coordination, informal mental health counselling, a soup kitchen and makeshift shelter for the homeless are all services the centre provides in Victoria's East Gippsland.

To say it has been a hectic for the neighbourhood house is an understatement.

There are rotting wooden beams in aging infrastructure and meeting rooms are still overloaded with donated non-perishable food and toiletries from during the bushfires.

"We need some long-term thinking here," said manager Leanne Jennings.

"When we had the bushfires in East Gippsland, there was no specific infrastructure to help. It was very haphazard. We've still got buildings here full of bushfire [donated] items."

With the current infrastructure bursting at the seams, Ms Jennings says that a purpose-built, multi-faceted "super centre" facility was warranted.



According to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), in 2019 the Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House operated on a total income of $222,364 and paid for one full-time staff position, two part-time staff, building and utility costs and general expenditure on food, kitchen equipment and vehicles.

The Victorian Government provides just over half of the funding budget, with the balance made up of donations, bequests and income from goods, services and investments, such as the in-house opportunity shop.

"The Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House tells a fairly typical story of a little organisation doing very big things on the smell of an oily rag," said David Perry, the policy and research officer for Neighbourhood Houses Victoria.

Delivering $1.7 million worth of value

According to a recent report compiled by Neighbourhood Houses Victoria, from its budget the Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House delivered $1.7 million of value in community outreach, food security and emergency relief to the local community.  

"Not only can government not provide this, they can't do it as efficiently and nimbly as a neighbourhood house," Mr Perry said of the organisation's ability to respond quickly to evolving community situations.

"As we've seen with COVID-19, they can reorientate the operations to meet the new and emerging needs of a community such as we saw with the bushfires in East Gippsland."





Mr Perry said with the frequency and duration of emergencies and now a looming economic and mental health crisis, there was an ever-increasing demand for outreach services.

"Unless you invest in the local community infrastructure before the emergency happens, with ongoing support during and after emergencies, you're not going to get the best outcomes," he said.

Mr Perry said neighbourhood houses continued to support communities 10 years after the state's Black Saturday bushfire disaster.

"They are still running programs to support people with their mental health due to that fire," he said.

"Years down the track, all those other services have gone, the Red Cross isn't there anymore, all the initial flurry has disappeared.

"But the Neighbourhood House is still in there still finding the money to provide baseline support services for people who are recovering from that disaster."

Vison and foresight needed

In Bairnsdale, Ms Jennings said the current building posed a potential health and safety risk to staff, volunteers, delivery drivers and the community.

"We're bringing food through a front door where we have general public walking through," she said.

"We need a loading dock, some shared resources that other community organisations can use, like palette jacks, so when we do get that crisis like a bushfire or a flood, we've got the capacity in this community to deal with it."



Ms Jennings said improved building infrastructure would allow the service to better support its homeless community.

"We also need a designated outdoor area for the homeless to wash their clothes and have a shower," she said.

"We also need an outside toilet, which is a big problem at the moment here."

With no end in sight to the long-term fallout of what have been a string of extraordinary circumstances, Ms Jennings said some vision and foresight was needed to recognise the neighbourhood house as a point of social cohesion in community planning.

Ms Jennings said while neighbourhood house funding was primarily the responsibility of the State Government, future funding models could incorporate local council funding, funding from emergency organisations such as the Red Cross or a contribution from mental health organisations.

"We need to look at something centralised, some infrastructure that can meet the demand in a crisis situation but is still workable week-to-week," she said.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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