People are often surprised by the suggestion that homelessness exists in the Hills. People look in bewilderment and wonder how exactly that could be; after all, we are in an idyllic part of the world where the city meets the country, we have the highest rate of tertiary education and one of the highest rates of disposable income per capita in the nation. We are a financially well off area where we seemingly have no real social issues.

Compared to other parts of Sydney, it is fair to argue that this is the case and social issues here are not as pressing as other areas. However, the reality is when you scratch below the well-to-do exterior that we Hills Shire residents like to portray we find that there are, like any community, people in need of a helping hand.

Sadly, people in the Hills Shire are affected by homelessness. Of course, for most of us when we picture homelessness, we picture men and women in tattered clothes sitting on a street corner, heads down and begging for money. This is one form of homelessness, which you don’t often see here in the Hills, as you may do in Parramatta and the Sydney CBD.

Homelessness in the Hills mainly exists in the form of “couch surfing” — people with no home of their own who itinerantly sleep on the couches of friends and relatives.

There are also people forced to sleep in their cars, and for some reason are unable to return home. Often these people are women who have escaped violence in the home and who are unable to secure emergency accommodation. The reasons for homelessness are varied but it seems in the Hills that financial hardship and domestic violence are largely responsible.

In 2014, the first Hills Mayoral Winter Sleepout took place. The aim of the sleepout was to raise awareness of the complex issue of homelessness in the Hills and to give participants an insight into what being homeless would actually be like.

Last year 80 participants from local businesses, local and federal government roughed it at Bella Vista Farm, collecting sponsors along the way. Some chose to pay more to secure shelter in the barn while the rest slept on the grass in the rain.

It was a rough night, sleeping on cardboard and dealing with the cold and the rain, but the event generated an important discussion about the impact of homelessness, financial hardship and domestic violence on the Hills community. At the same time, the sleepout raised almost $40,000 for local charities that work with the homeless and the disadvantaged in our community.

Bottom l-r – Deputy Mayor Michelle Byrne, Jim Taggart OAM, Gailsusan Clarke. Middle l-r – Elizabeth Russo, Chelsea Winter. Top l-r – Michelle Brittain, Ben Jackson, Linda Gunek, Alex Hezari, Debbie Burgess.

This year the sleepout returns as The Hills Winter Sleepout, and will be held on Main Street, Castle Hill, to give participants an even deeper insight into life on the streets.

Four charities have been chosen as recipients of the monies raised this year. They include the Community Foundation of Northwest Sydney, Give n Take, the Lisa Harnum Foundation and Hills Community Aid Inc. These charities are run by a group of dedicated and inspirational people, some of whom have put their own lives and careers on hold to help those in need in
our community.

The Lisa Harnum Foundation

Set up in memory of Lisa Harnum, who died as a result of domestic violence with her then fiancé Simon Gittany throwing her from the balcony of their apartment in the city of Sydney, the Lisa Harnum Foundation was established in the Hills in response to the closure of the St Michaels Family Centre in 2014 — the only place that offered accommodation for victims of domestic violence in the Hills.

Aileen Mountifield, founder of the Lisa Harnum Foundation, was a victim of domestic violence as a child, and has previously worked in the field. She saw a need to help domestic violence victims and the homeless in the Hills and to ensure they had a safe place to stay.

“When St Michael’s closed down I wondered why no one was jumping up and down. I had a thought that I really had to do something to secure services in the Hills and ensure women can access support.”

Aileen Mountifield is an amazing woman with a vision to increase services in the Hills, and in just a year has almost brought that vision to fruition. She has managed to secure government funding towards setting up a safe house in Castle Hill, and has formed a partnership with Hornsby-Kuring-gai Women’s Shelter. In recent weeks QIC, the owners of Castle Towers Shopping Mall, gave the foundation a property that it can use for three years rent free to assist in establishing services provided by the foundation.

“It is exciting to see everything happening and to have QIC’s support. The Hills is a wonderful community. There is a real sense of belonging here. People do care,” she said.

In the longer term Aileen would like to establish more safe houses in the Hills to deal with escalating needs in the Hills, particularly as the population increases rapidly.

Like all charities, the Lisa Harnum Foundation faces many challenges, including the need to gather funds from the community, state and federal governments to ensure the services. There is also the ongoing need for volunteers, particularly for the steering committee and fundraising.

To find out more about the Lisa Harnum Foundation or to get involved go to lisahf.org.au or email aileen@lisahf.org.au.

Give n Take

Give n Take is a unique service, and the first of its kind in the Hills. It is an online charity that allows you to directly assist, donate or help local residents in hardship and need. It provides the basics a family in crisis may need such as groceries, furniture and petrol, all of which are donated by local community members.

Give n Take also works with the homeless and victims of domestic violence, and tries to secure emergency accommodation and rental accommodation for those in desperate need. Give n Take provides counselling services and assistance with agencies such as the Department of Public Housing and Centrelink.

The service was started by a courageous and inspirational mother of six, Mel Belle. Mel is assisted by her husband Nick, who gave up his career to help those in need on a full-time basis. Mel’s motivation to set up the charity was seeing the effects of financial distress and its effect in contributing to domestic violence.

“I wanted to create a service that could help those struggling to find someone who could actually help them. I wanted Give and Take to be unique, a service that fills the gaps in the welfare and community aid system,” she said.

Since its inception, Give n Take has been inundated with requests from families and individuals in need, as well as from agencies referring people to the service. Mel works around the clock and is lucky to get three hours of sleep a night, with phones ringing constantly.

“I can see the difference Give n Take is making and I often wonder who would help these people if I and the team around me were not here to help them.”

Give n Take runs entirely with community support and is always looking for volunteers to assist with a number of roles including marketing, sorting donations at the warehouse, assisting with their “DV Flee” service, pick-up and deliver donations for families, and fundraising.

For more information check out its Facebook page facebook.com/pages/Give-and-Take or email giveandtakefamilies@outlook.com.

Hills Community Aid

HCA has operated in the Hills since 1969 and provides a range of community based services including visits to the elderly and isolated, zero interest loan schemes, support services for grandparents titled “Parents Again”, “Learning in the Hills”, “The Hills Playgroup”, “Tax Help” and financial counselling services.

The HCA is a well utilised community service that helps thousands of Hills residents every year. CEO Ben Jackson believes that the biggest issues HCA sees in the Hills are social isolation and financial illiteracy.

“In youth these present as substance abuse, mental health issues and suicide. In families we see it present as domestic violence and financial crisis. In the elderly we see it present as ‘Shut-in Syndrome’ and scammers taking advantage of people.”

At the moment HCA is working on developing a number of really exciting projects including “The Hills Daily Grind”, a mentoring program for women post-domestic violence and a community legal service.

With the changing landscape of community service funding, HCA is focused on developing strong social enterprise delivery models and self-funding programs. In the longer term the vision is to grow the service to communities beyond north-west Sydney.

“HCA has such a broad reach of programs so we see many positive stories across our community. We see clients become volunteers because a program has helped them so much. We see people thank us for helping them out of financial crisis and back onto the road to financial stability. We see the generosity of our community in so many ways.”

There are several ways to assist HCA by donating to one or more programs, volunteering to participate and help others and by sponsoring one of their social enterprises. For more information or to volunteer go to hca.org.au or email benj@hca.org.au.

The Community Foundation of Northwest Sydney

The Community Foundation of Northwest Sydney provides a number of services including funding crisis accommodation for youth and families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, providing funds to families and individuals to overcome their immediate hardship, counselling services to assist clients to better manage their finances, reducing isolation through supporting community based transport and the “bridging the gap program”.

The foundation was set up by the late Bill Dixon to help families in crisis. He was posthumously awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for his outstanding work. Mr Dixon was driven by the desire to give back to the country that had given him so much and was active with the foundation until his death.

Today the foundation continues raising funds to help the homeless and disadvantaged in north-west Sydney.

For more information on the Community Foundation go to cfnws.org.au or email presidentcfnws@gmail.com. ☐