An important aspect of Gethsemane Community’s role, under the leadership of Sr Myree, has been her capacity to speak out and lobby on behalf of the homeless.
When people with mental illness are homeless or in ‘insecure’ housing, their illness is less likely to stabilise. Once they have a secure home with adequate support, they get the option of a mental health case manager, who can get them stabilised on medication (where necessary) and assist them in developing living skills. If needed, their finances can also be protected by the NSW Trustee and Guardian. In many cases, there is no family contact. They can start to live their life, possibly working in sheltered workshops to develop hobbies and enjoy leisure activities, enabling them to become part of a wider community and make friends.
Gethsemane Community Inc has been described as a lighthouse and model for what could be done to promote human dignity and independence among those who have lived in or been associated with the community. Its outreach to people with disabilities in boarding houses has spread its influence across NSW. In Sr Myree’s years of advocacy from Gethsemane and through St Vincent de Paul committees, CASA (the Coalition for Appropriate Supported Accommodation) and on a NSW Expert Advisory Committee on Boarding Houses, there have been great improvements in services and prospects for a better quality of life for the homeless.
Sr Myree has had a leadership role in all the above structures. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2002 which allowed her to study what was being done to support the mentally ill, especially those with the dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness. She personally knows the people and situations in many Boarding Houses. She has obtained grants from foundations such as the Mary MacKillop Foundation and Paul Newman’s Own’ to provide shoes for Boarding House tenants. Myree has the skills of counselling, as well as educational leadership, which combined with her personal knowledge gained from living with the residents allows her to speak with unique clarity and integrity.
In the NSW Government debate, prior to passing the new legislation for the Boarding Houses Bill 2012, the Hon Marie Ficarra in her presentation in the upper house chose to put on record Sr Myree’s contribution of work in ensuring the rights of the individual were protected. She said:
“I commend and honour Sister Myree Harris, OAM, a contemporary Josephite nun acting in the spirit of Mary MacKillop by responding to the needs of the homeless in inner Sydney since 1990.”
There had been a Boarding House in Marrickville called ‘300’ in which 5 residents had died over several years and a coroner had raised questions of lack of duty of care. Sr Myree had consistently spoken on behalf of the residents in this house and some of the points she made in a television interview were read into the parliamentary proceedings.
“Sister Myree Harris, a long-time community advocate for people in Boarding Houses said the scandal had been a long time coming.”
Further in that ABC interview Wendy Carlisle stated:
“Myree Harris has been campaigning against dodgy Boarding Houses for years. Using freedom of information laws, she obtained reports which showed that hostels like 300 had been on the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care’s radar for a long time. She sent all these documents off to the state ombudsman.”
Sr Myree did not work alone in her advocacy, it had been a long process carried out through various partners to bring about this change in law. The Boarding House Bill was the beginning of the next stage of obtaining secure tenancy for the homeless that live in ‘insecure’ and sometimes degrading situations.
Advocacy requires a solid theoretical understanding of the situation which Sr Myree and other partner organisations gather via their research which requires an ongoing presence and the trust of the individuals involved. People who have suffered abuse will only share their stories with people they trust. This is won slowly by those who offer help and support without judgement, treating them with dignity and respect, which is at the core of Gethsemane Community approach.
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