8. Sacred Heart Mission

Trevor Skerry and Jane Bakos



Background and History of Sacred Heart Mission

Sacred Heart Mission (SHM) was founded in 1982, to respond to the immediate needs of the St Kilda community. Since then, we have evolved into an innovative organisation, providing support, care and nurturing to alleviate and prevent homelessness, poverty and social isolation, regardless of race, religion, sex or age. We are now a well-recognised community service organisation, with Incorporated Association status, a board of governance and a range of complementary, innovative services all focused on addressing the issues of homelessness, social isolation and disadvantage. We work with people with a background of complex disadvantage, people who have experienced multiple episodes of trauma and sometimes decades of homelessness. Everyone is welcome at our table.

Our vision is of an inclusive, fair and compassionate community, which enables people to overcome disadvantage and realise their full potential. In everything we do, our aim is to build people’s capacity to secure stable housing and enjoy a safe, independent and active community life. We recognise everybody is unique. No matter where people are in their journey, we are here to assist them, and we do not give up. We offer more than 20 programs and services, delivered in collaboration with a network of specialist, referral and service partners to provide wraparound support for our clients. We rely on the continued support of government, philanthropy, community donations and volunteers to deliver these programs. Every year SHM offers up to 10 RMIT social work placements across the organisation, in a wide range of programs. These are divided into two main categories, Engagement Hubs and Individualised Planned Support, and Ongoing Support.

Engagement Hubs

Fundamental to our services are our Engagement Hubs, which include the Women’s House and the Dining Hall/Sacred Heart Central, all located in St Kilda. The Engagement Hubs provide a safe space that is welcoming and supportive, and access to the necessities of life – healthy food, a shower and laundry facilities. Sacred Heart Central includes the Meals Program which provides hearty, nutritious meals 365 days of the year. It is a program that does far more than feed people. It also provides opportunities for people to reconnect to and develop a sense of community and belonging. In 2020-2021, the Meals program provided 169,417 meals to clients (served as takeaway due to the Covid-19 pandemic.) Case management services are provided at Sacred Heart Central, as well as the Resource Room, a confidential space where people can ask for specific advice and support from a duty worker; and is often the first place people come when seeking support in crisis. Co-located at Sacred Heart Central is the Wellness Place, which offers a wide range of complementary therapies in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, such as optometry, nutrition and podiatry. Our therapists are qualified practitioners who volunteer their services at the Wellness Place. The Women’s House provides a safe and supportive environment for anyone in need who identifies as a woman. Women come to seek support, a meal, a shower, a pathway out of homelessness, and a place to rest. In an average year the Women’s House opens its doors more than 7,000 times.

Individualised planned support

  • GreenLightSupportive Housing Program was funded in 2018 to address rough sleeping in Melbourne and help people to settle into and sustain housing over a two-year period. GreenLight is delivered in partnership between Sacred Heart Mission, VincentCare and the Salvation Army, assisting people sleeping rough across inner Melbourne to settle into their new home and community and stay housed.
  • GreenLight Plus provides pathways to stable housing, as well as brighter and more stable futures for people caught in a cycle of homelessness, who had been temporarily housed in hotel accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The program is delivered in partnership with Housing Choices Australia and the Salvation Army
  • Homefront is a state-wide crisis accommodation service for women (Cis and Trans) aged 25 and over, without accompanying children. Homefront provides a safe and supportive environment for women who are experiencing homelessness as a result of a crisis.
  • Journey to Social Inclusion (J2SI) – is nationally recognised for its success in addressing chronic homelessness, providing three years of intensive case management and service coordination for people who have experienced long-term homelessness.
  • Bethlehem Community offers a two-year therapeutic recovery-focused service, with an emphasis on mental health response and trauma-informed practice in a residential setting for vulnerable women (Cis and Trans) of all ages and backgrounds.

Ongoing support and accommodation

  • Sacred Heart Local links socially isolated, disadvantaged people into receiving the My Aged Care (MAC), National Insurance Disability Scheme (NDIS) or Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP) services they need to live well and independently.
  • Sacred Heart Community supports people as they age within their local community. The service provides support for up to 97 people who require low to high care at Sacred Heart Mission’s residential facility at 101 Grey St, St Kilda. We provide a home for life for residents, through our unique and award-winning model of care “My Community, My Way” which engages our residents in planning and decision making in all aspects of their residency and support.
  • Rooming House Plus Program enables people with histories of chronic homelessness to break the cycle of disadvantage through long-term accommodation and the support needed to maintain housing.

Our Service Model and Approach

We understand that everyone’s journey is unique, and we work to provide people with support that is effective and carefully tailored to their individual needs. We acknowledge the high incidence of trauma experienced by the people accessing our services and understand that a complex relationship exists between the impact of trauma, homelessness, mental health, and social disadvantage. To provide an effective response, our interactions with people are guided by the principles of trauma informed practice.

In all cases, the objective is to create a relationship of trust whereby people know that they can receive a quality and responsive service that meets their needs. Our Service Model (Sacred Heart Mission 2016) is aligned with our vision, mission and values, we put clients at the centre of our service delivery and work with them to achieve real and sustainable changes driven by their aspirations. We introduce the Service Model to our students and expect them to understand and work with the model as part of their placements.

Student Placements at SHM in 2020 and 2021

Placements at Sacred Heart Mission in 2020 and 2021 have reflected how the Covid-19 pandemic was being managed within the Victorian community, and in the organisation at different times. As all community organisations experienced, we had many challenges impacting on our ability to deliver services to clients. In the early stages of the pandemic, several of our programs were paused or quickly modified to ensure, where we could, that we continued to provide safe and accessible services to the people we support.

The ripple effect of this created some potential issues for students who were about to begin placements with us, including how to market student placements to programs that were traditionally face-to-face, and whose staff were experiencing Covid-19 fatigue. When government restrictions and university requirements meant face-to-face placements could not be undertaken, we saw opportunities to develop an alternative placement model that could be completed remotely by reviewing our 10 Year Strategic Plan, Diversity Frameworks, trauma-informed practices and program logics.

We noted gaps where work was required but the organisation had previously lacked the opportunity and time to complete. With support from RMIT, we moved to project-based placements of interesting, relevant and useful work that would be beneficial to the students’ learning, and the organisation’s knowledge and resources.

Projects undertaken included:

  • developing a resource pack for working with people experiencing hoarding and squalor
  • developing a proposal and prototype for a home-based client file
  • reviewing and re-developing our Trauma Informed Care Training Model
  • contributing to the implementation of a family violence training package in line with legislative requirements
  • developing a position paper on the need for Rainbow Tick accreditation
  • researching the links between homelessness, death and dying, and
  • reviewing our Quality Framework.

We prioritised keeping everyone as safe as possible, while still maintaining social connection and support. The organisation quickly implemented remote-working technologies, such as Zoom, but this was not without its’ challenges. We supported students in this environment by either pairing students with each other or providing a buddy to connect with; daily check-ins (rotated amongst task supervisors), 2 x 2-hour group sessions (supervision/team meetings) per week, weekly dedicated peer support time, a messenger group for students to connect with each other, individual supervision with the field educator or task supervisor and regular contact between field educators and task supervisors.

The framework was designed to ensure students were connecting with either a peer or supervisor at the beginning and end of every day. It was a truly amazing to observe the development of the group, their practice, and their knowledge despite not ever physically being together.

Placements in 2021 are different again. Our Engagement Hubs have been unable to host a student this year due to the fatigue of staff and the vulnerability of clients. Whilst students are able to be on site and work with the people we support directly, each program’s Covid-19 safe plan is different. Outreach teams are working in a hybrid model with split teams, resulting in students also needing to work remotely, and for some, never meeting their teammates face to face. Alternatively, those students placed in a residential context are onsite all the time. As a result, all group supervision and training sessions are conducted online; and students have either in-person or online individual supervision depending on which program they are placed in. Covid-19 outbreaks change the landscape again, either through students needing to isolate, placement being put on hold or needing to work remotely whilst the office is deep cleaned. Currently, students are unable to move between sites and have not yet met each other in person and may not be able to until placements are finished.

SHM’s capacity to run placements would not be possible without the RMIT dedicated Student Placement Program, particularly during the pandemic. The program is coordinated by the Student Placement Officer and includes a learning unit that is designed to be a separate, but integrated, learning space where the students spend up to a day a week together for group supervision, professional development, and peer support. The program also offers field educators and task supervisors the opportunity to meet once a month during the placement to discuss operational issues and reflect on supervision or their own peer support needs. Without RMIT’s placement support we would not be able to offer such an enriched learning experience. The Field Education Team at RMIT are an integral part of the program right from the initial matching, ongoing support, training opportunities and regular contacts. The theory students bring from class links back to what is happening in the workplace, resulting in synergy between the two.

At SHM we have employed close to 75% of all students who come into our program into ongoing roles across the organisation, and after so many years of working together, our original students are now supervising the current students. We have named this our “student inter-generational learning model” and it makes our program even stronger.

Here is what students have said about their placements at Sacred Heart Mission:

My time at Sacred Heart Mission was not only beneficial to my studies, I believe it made me a better person and perhaps more tolerant toward the particular needs of the wider community.

I had an epiphany, that after four years of studying and after trying to imagine what social work is all about, I finally understand how social work fits and have confidence that I can be and feel I will be a social worker.

Sacred Heart Mission is the most generous organisation I have had the privilege to be part of, you really feel a sense of welcome and community here.

Every staff member truly lives the organisation’s values and is united in challenging the societal structures that lead to disadvantage.

We believe that students are the future of the community service sector and seeing them graduate as social workers and community service professionals is one of the most satisfying parts of our job.


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Partnerships with the Community: Social Work Field Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic Copyright © 2022 by Ronnie Egan; Betty Haralambous; and Patrick O’Keeffe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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