As she sits ready to be interviewed to mark the 30th Anniversary of the House of Hospitality, an accommodation service for the homeless she created and has delivered for over three decades, the action swirls around her.
On hold to Legal Aid, she happily begins answering Aurora’s questions, pauses briefly to greet volunteers at the door before scooping up a crying two-year-old who has wandered into the room, all the while continuing to share anecdotes about her life’s work. Her reputation for multi-tasking is clearly well founded but her passion for helping those in need is far more impressive.
“As a Sister of St Joseph, I am guided by Mary MacKillop’s words, ‘Never see a need without responding to it’. And I feel that’s what we do here – respond to need,” Sister Carmel said, while acknowledging the valuable support she receives from a small faith community of volunteers.
“We always apply this philosophy even though the needs have changed across the decades.”
Originally based at Adamstown, the House of Hospitality began by offering accommodation to men who were engaged in alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs. However, as social welfare policies changed and gaps in community support services appeared, the House began taking in refugees and others in need. Now based at Broadmeadow, the House provides a safe haven for many including women escaping domestic violence.
“I’m so grateful to the Parish of St Laurence O'Toole Broadmeadow. We’ve been welcomed by them and they really make this all possible – the house, the donations. I can always call on them,” Sister Carmel said.
“In all my work I have never seen things as bad as they are now. There are so many people in need and COVID-19 really showed us how quickly circumstances can change.
“But what is also encouraging is I feel there has also been a change in attitude. When I started this work, the people I supported were seen as being in the gutter. Now people understand more as there is a broader awareness in society, people can relate – it could be their neighbour.”
Despite some changes to the operation over the years, Sister Carmel said the fundamental ethos of the House remained consistent – ‘ease the burden and provide some stability to people in need’.
“I advocate for many causes but to me we need more social housing. That’s the stability that vulnerable people need. It connects to other aspects in life - finding a job, getting children to school - an address isn’t just shelter, it’s stability,” Sister Carmel said.
Jessica*, who has been living at the House of Hospitality for the last three months with her six-year-old son said it had been the broader supports that helped her most.
“The House of Hospitality has given me the stability I needed. It’s been somewhere to breathe. My son and I were homeless after leaving domestic violence. I was sleeping on friends’ couches but my son has behavioural challenges and it was just so stressful. Sister Carmel has not just stopped me from moving around but she’s helped connect me to services, programs and the other girls here.”
Another resident, Jade*, has been living at the House for the past four months after she and her two-year-old daughter left a partner who was using drugs. Jade said she was particularly grateful for the strong community within the House.
“I’ve just been accepted into a transitional house which is so amazing, but I know it’s also going to be lonely. Here it’s not just accommodation, it’s life. I’ve learnt so much. We’re starting cooking classes and Sister Carmel is having us create a recipe book; those skills I’m learning are as important as the house,” she said.
There are thousands of people who have been impacted by the House of Hospitality and each have a story to share.
“It’s a privilege to be let into peoples’ lives,” said Sister Carmel.
“I’ve learned so much here and I’m always humbled by people’s courage. I’m in awe of others’ resilience and tenacity to hang in despite their rejection. Here, I see the human spirit live on every day.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.