Welcome to Week 9

Welcome to Week 9 of our 40 Stories in 40 Weeks. In this extract from our history co-authored by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, we remember one of the bad old days and dangers of working in the rabbit warren offices of the Temperance Hall in View Street, Bendigo.

At The Coalface

As much as society proper likes to distance itself from those who live on the fringe, homeless does not equate to nameless for those who work among them. Haven; Home, Safe employees listen to their clients’ stories, build relationships and try to support those who often carry so much psychological and emotional baggage, yet literally have no means of storing it. 

“We ask people to crawl inside others’ heads and walk a mile in their shoes,” CEO Ken Marchingo AM reflects. 

“They experience some terrible things by virtue of the nature of the people they work with. We ask our staff to understand and to do that they sometimes have to go to a very dark place. We do damage to people who work for us here, unless we are really careful.” 

Over the years there have been some truly terrifying episodes, some embroiling staff who were not even trained front-line case workers, like the time a young man tried to set fire to his partner in the reception area of the old View Street offices.  Bizarrely, the duress alarm for the reception area terminated in the finance office at the rear of the building – the rationale being the finance officers were more likely than field workers to be at their desks. 

Chief Financial Officer Paul Somerville recalls it sounding one particular day and then a plea asking for urgent assistance. “As the tallest male in the vicinity, I got the nod and by the time I got downstairs, round the corner, through the hall and out the door and down another set of stairs there were already a couple of people there including a support worker. There was a young Aboriginal woman terrified and screaming. Her partner had a drink container – like a child’s fruit juice bottle – full of petrol and he had shaken half over her. She had tried to take off her jumper that was soaked in petrol. It was half off and she was half undressed and he was waving a lighter around threatening to ignite her. 

“It was a horrific situation. There were two people already trying to talk to him when I arrived and there was not much we could do except stand by. I guess we were sort of hoping that through sheer numbers we could convince him to take an alternate path.

“The police had also been called and after about five minutes of talking and not getting anywhere, a policeman walked past me with a can of capsicum spray behind his back. He let fly with the spray and everyone bolted out of the front room – well, everyone except our support services manager, who didn’t quite make it, before we shut the door behind us. The capsicum spray did its job and we spent the next hour carrying buckets of water out to this poor bugger and pouring them over his head. I say poor bugger because I guess I had some compassion for him as well as, of course, for the girl who was terrified.” 

Barbara Devcic, then a case worker, was also there, though she recalls the episode slightly differently – through the eyes of the children who accompanied their mother. 

“I remember one of them, a little boy, had a tennis ball and he just kept throwing it up against the wall while this was going on. He had retreated into this safety place in his head. I managed to get him out and took him into the hall. He was OK for a bit and then he just collapsed, passed out in a heap. The poor mother had wet herself she was so terrified. They ended up being taken to a refuge and the little boy’s toy tiger ended up getting left behind in all the commotion. Because they had gone into a secure refuge it wasn’t a simple matter of passing it on. The tiger hung around for ages. We ended up putting it in the toy box and it was a constant reminder of what had happened.” 

It might have been that day that Marchingo resolved to move his staff into new offices. 

“We were captive to the architecture,” he says. ”No matter what our ideals were, if we let somebody in that front door area they were trapped the moment someone walked into that room. There was no exit point, there was nowhere for them to go. It was a recipe for disaster if someone wanted to act up. Invariably some do.”

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