Welcome to Week 5

In week 5 of our 40 stories in 40 weeks, we wind the clock back to 1994.  In this extract from our history, co-authored by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, incoming CEO of the then Bendigo Urban Emergency Accommodation Resource Centre, Ken Marchingo, makes some bold decisions about the future of the agency. 

Moving House

“Every second of the day for two and a half years, I thought about walking away,” Ken Marchingo recalls of his first years with BUEARC.

It was as if he’d hit the trifecta of workplace woes. The organisation was financially chaotic, its clients were those no one else wanted to know and its premises a Dickensian warren of stairs, narrow passages and dog boxes.

Bob Cameron, who was vice-president of the BUEARC committee of management during the final years of Elaine McNamara’s tenure as executive officer, and later was president of the renamed Bendigo Emergency Housing, still aches at the memory of the rising damp in the walls of the Temperance Hall. “I remember countless discussions about how to damp-proof old buildings,” the former MLA for Bendigo West and Brumby government minister recalls.

In some ways the office’s historic View Street facade was like a physical expression of BUEARC in those days –  a grand serene front somewhat disconnected from the frantic scrabbling behind.

“It existed on little grants,” Cameron remembers of the organisation.

“There were always little grants and Elaine was a champion at hunting them out. She used to look at the paper every Saturday and make applications for anything that was vaguely connected. You had to sort of cobble together an income and there were always bits falling off because the individual grants only went on for a limited time. So bits would drop off, but the organisation found another grant for something else and on it went.  So you’ve got an organisation that’s about emergency accommodation, but then there were all these other things vaguely connected related to people’s lifestyles, a little bit about helping people with disabilities, a little bit about education and training. That’s the way the place survived in the early days.”

The annual reports of 1989 – 1990 and 1990-91 show just how piecemeal the organisation was, covering everything from inspection of secondhand car yards suspected of breaching the Fair Trading Act to catwalk hire for fashion shows.

In addition to operating four emergency houses, one rooming house, three youth houses and 14 medium-term rental homes, BUEARC ran a host of other programs and services. These included the Residential Tenancy Advice Service and the Consumer Information Service, both funded by the Consumer Affairs Department. This meant as well as people with housing needs walking through the door, there were also people with complaints about cars that proved lemons, faulty whitegoods and complaints about supermarket pricing discrepancies.

BUEARC was also the local agency to assess applications and distribute funds for housing bond payments, relocation fees, emergency relief, and re-establishment funds for domestic violence victims, for instance, shelling out $122,693 to some 488 applicants in 1990-91. It operated a mobile recycling service, a printing service, numerous job-training schemes, in-home support for the disabled, disabled cottage industries, Aboriginal training and the injured worker support group.

Plus it ran a caravan park information service, literacy and numeracy programs, the op shop, its own cafe, printed a cookbook and made jam.

It’s small wonder that in 1990-91 BUEARC reported 32,000 contacts across the organisation, up from 3200 a decade earlier.  It seemed it was the place you went to if you wanted anything and everything, a sort of social welfare equivalent of Steptoe and Son. Rightly or wrongly, the fact that there were a few sons and other relatives involved over the years also raised concerns, with the Office of Housing dictating all funding cease at the end of December 1993 unless significant changes were made.

The new incoming CEO in 1994  decided it was time to go back to basics.

“We changed the name to Bendigo Emergency Housing and the decision was made we would stick to our knitting,” Cameron recalls. “We were in the housing business, right? We weren’t in the housing and associated welfare-type business, so we would cut back to the core.”

That then came down to pretty much one person – Marchingo.

“I was the housing worker. I did the intake work, wrote the emergency relief cheques, picked people up, took them out to houses and showed them how things worked and then raced back to the office to see the next person,” he remembers.

“Two or three times a night I’d get out of bed to pick people up from the police station or the emergency room at the hospital and then drive around endlessly trying to find a motel that was open. It was such a well-known institution by then. Where do you send poor people? You send them to BUEARC – that was the ethos I really tried to hang on to. We had housing and we had cash. When everyone else had food parcels and was offering tea and sympathy, we’d write a cheque.”

But for all his commitment and drive, the organisation might well have fallen over had it not been for one other person – a former nurse named Trish Champion.

“When I first started Trish was a volunteer,” Marchingo says. “I said to her after a couple of months: How many hours a week do you volunteer? She said: ‘Twenty’. So I said: Then why are you here before I get in to work and here after I go home? She said: ‘Well, I can’t get everything done in 20 hours’. She was actually doing about 40 hours a week. As soon as I had enough money I started paying her for 20 hours and she started doing 60.

“One of my oldest daughter’s earliest memories is of sneaking up the laneway next to the Temperance Hall and the next building and bashing on the window and yelling out: ‘Trish, go home!’ Because we’d have come past about 7–7.30pm and she would still be there.

“She had a huge heart and genuinely couldn’t stand the fact these people were living in horrible circumstances. She would just do everything she could. For a long time we clothed a lot of our older homeless guys out of what we called ‘Uncle’s Bag’. Trish had an old uncle who’d died and she’d gathered up all his clothes and whenever anyone had no clothes Uncle would clothe them

“I remember one beneficiary in particular. I got a call to pick up this guy from the old Bendigo Hospital late one night. The hospital had refused to treat him and said they weren’t going to deal with him because he was pissed.  He was an old, old man. He was terribly frail and doubly incontinent. He absolutely stank. The hospital had been very kind and laid out some newspapers for him to lie on outside. I got him into my car and I rang Trish and said: Look, I have this really old man I’m taking to the mudbrick house and I don’t know how to deal with him. Trish said: ‘Right, I’ll grab Uncle’s Bag and I’ll meet you there’. It was about 1am in the morning by then.

“This old bloke carried everything he owned and needed on his person, including teabags stuffed in his pockets. He was wearing three overcoats, several suit coats and pairs of trousers and shirts. The first thing we needed to do was get him into a tub and try and get him clean. So we ran a bath and we managed to convince him to get in, but he wasn’t going to take all his clothes off. Trish ordered him to strip and he said: ‘No, I can’t. They won’t come off.’ And they wouldn’t because his body hair had grown through the fabric. So we got this poor frail old man into the tub still dressed and then Trish, using the warm water to soften and loosen the fabric, cut the clothes off him.

“We filled the bath four times and four times the water turned brown until he was finally clean. When we got him out we realised he was white on the top half, but brown on the bottom half. We realised he was permanently tea-stained by the tea he carried in pockets that were always wet. We got him into Uncle’s clean clothes. Then Trish gave him a shave and she said: ‘Now call an ambulance and get them to take him back to that bloody hospital. Tell them he is not pissed, he is diabetic and in diabetic shock’.

“That was Trish. She was incredible. She had this look that could stop you dead in your tracks. She would wave a finger at people and they would quail. She was, without doubt, our secret weapon and saving grace.”

It has always been about people for Marchingo – those he works with and those they are all working on behalf of.

Join us next week for our third instalment of 40 Stories in 40 Weeks, as we remember and celebrate 40 years of Haven; Home, Safe.