An unexpected healing tool at the Burnie Safe Space
BY KIRRALEE NICOLLE
As the sitcom Community depicts, pool tables can be a battleground of competing ideals and escalating conflict. But that is not always the case. In a small crisis accommodation centre run out of Burnie Corps, Tasmania, a well-worn pool table is helping provide healing through connection.
The Burnie Safe Space is a short-term accommodation centre for anyone experiencing homelessness on the state’s north-west coast. Acting team leader Michael Parsons said of all the features of the centre, the donated pool table was most invaluable for connecting with clients who had faced trauma.
“That eight-ball table is the single best therapeutic tool we own,” he said. “It is amazing how many people will be extremely reticent to engage with us, and then one of the guys will say, ‘Come on, let’s have a game, right?’
“They get comfortable, and then they will start to talk.”
The Burnie Safe Space, now entering its fourth year of operation, provides accommodation for 20 people. The team is in the process of expanding the capacity to 24. Michael said that while it was often assumed that the winter months were the busiest for crisis accommodation centres like the Burnie Safe Space, that was not always the case.
“We have been at or near capacity for a couple of months now, and it will be interesting to see how that’s going to look over the next three to six months, whether we will stay at that capacity,” he said.
The centre is currently in the process of planning for a future influx of people seeking crisis accommodation, as Michael said the full effects of skyrocketing housing and living costs were yet to be seen in the demographic currently sleeping rough. He said he anticipates it will take six to 12 months to see the numbers of those experiencing homelessness primarily due to financial strain, to reach their peak.
“There’s a significant lag factor,” he said. “For instance, if you take interest rate rises on mortgages, each one is like a little blade that swings across and chops off the people who are hanging by their fingernails. These people typically transition down to family living arrangements, but because of various stresses and strains, these arrangements can quite often break down. So, then they go down the next rung, which is usually friends, and they then transition down to things like couch surfing, then finally too often car sleeping, and then finally rough sleeping.
“So, there are several rungs down the ladder before they will reach someone like us.”
Michael said a feature of the Safe Space that set it apart was that clients couldn’t overstay their welcome.
“Our ethos is to be a short-term crisis accommodation centre, but some people have very complex requirements, and we don’t put a time limit on a stay here,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to put pressure on people to leave if we know they’re just going to exit into homelessness, but what we can do is leave no stone unturned in our efforts to case manage, link these people with the appropriate supports and services and help them to transition into something better than they’ve been experiencing. Because the more often we do that, the more we are able to take in the next wave of people who require our service.”
Michael said the focus of the service was on trauma-informed treatment of underlying causes for homelessness and that the pool table provided a gateway for many who were fearful of opening up.
“When people come in here, [particularly] homeless people who have been homeless for some time, they are quite wary of authority and figures of authority,” he said. “And whether we like it or not, we represent an authority figure. But when you’re at the pool table, it’s a level playing field. All of a sudden, you’re not that authority figure anymore. You’re just an opponent on the pool table, and that’s another driver for them to drop their guard and begin to relax and open up to you because they’re not sitting across the room from you. You’re pretty much peers at the pool table.
“Almost invariably, it is the gateway into helping us to understand the person because it allows them to feel comfortable enough. Within a week, we have a good picture of who they are, what they’ve experienced and what their problems are now.”
Michael said the pool table was often in use up to 16 hours a day and was beginning to show the effects of its busy schedule.
“Unfortunately, it’s been so heavily used that it’s now on its very last legs,” he said. “[It] has done so much work in its life here, but it’s now pretty much shot to bits. The felt is ripped. The cushions are shot. If any kind person out there would like to either donate a table or help towards the cost of a table, that would go down very, very well with all staff and clients.”
Visit the MySalvos Homelessness Week toolkit at https://my.salvos.org.au/homelessness-week-toolkit-2023/