• There's no 'us and them' in this initiative. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The pandemic has changed assumptions about who needs help and Wayside Chapel's Heart Cafe in Sydney is there for everyone.
Lee Tran Lam

26 May 2020 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2020 - 1:15 PM

Heart Cafe lives up to its name: it serves compassion with its coffee orders. Run by charity Wayside Chapel, the Bondi eatery launched in 2018 to create work opportunities for disenfranchised youth who face barriers to employment. The current pandemic, of course, has shaken up its usual way of operating. Its dine-in service is limited which has forced it to focus heavily on take-home meals. But that hasn't stopped it from helping people.

Heart Cafe manager Mo Rosa tells SBS Food, "We connected with Bondi Surf Club and The Char Rotisserie, and we created care packs for people in need."

These packages, filled with sought-after supermarket items (like toilet paper and paracetamol) have been handed out to Wayside Chapel visitors, and anyone requiring assistance. Rosa has also ladled out The Char Rotisserie's Soup for the Soul meals, which have been simmered for homeless shelters, medical workers and anyone needing a nourishing meal right now. One mum, who turned up nearly crying, definitely did.

"She'd spent her kid's birthday money on food because the government help hadn't come through yet," says Rosa. "So I loaded her up with soup and care packages." 

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The woman, a contractor who usually earned good money, was asking for help for the first time because all her work had disappeared during the pandemic.

Wayside Chapel's executive minister Rev Graham Anson says, "Our mission statement at Wayside is creating community with no 'us and them'. This is a real leveller because everyone's in the same boat, we're all struggling in our own ways.

It's why it was so important to keep Heart Cafe open, "because it's such a hub in our community".

"She'd spent her kid's birthday money on food, because the government help hadn't come through yet. So I loaded her up with soup and care packages."

Rosa says customers dropping into the cafe for a coffee or takeaway meal have noticed the care packs in the background and enquired about them. When Rosa explains their purpose, customers will tell her about a whole apartment block where everyone's lost their jobs, or a couple who've become unemployed at the same time – there's often someone they know who needs help.

In turn, Rosa makes sure they get some nappies or family care packs. "It made the hugest difference to them," she says. "Sometimes people are not comfortable going to traditional shelters or Centrelink. This is a place where they are comfortable with going when they need a hand right now."

The revenue from Heart Cafe flows into Wayside Chapel's services, which are vital for homeless communities and people sleeping rough right now. The organisation has kept its Kings Cross and Bondi centres open to ensure assistance is there.

"So you can still get a shower, meals, clothing and essential services like housing and access to Internet to get housing," says the reverend. Wayside Chapel helps people find temporary accommodation, too – and it offers a much-needed sense of community, too. Because although the pandemic draws headlines, there's another crisis that vulnerable people face.

"You can talk about homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, mental health – but the biggest thing killing Western society is loneliness," he says. The pandemic is set to make it worse – especially as social distancing is key to limiting the coronavirus' spread. "We're trying to give people the simple resources to get through, but also the sense of connection so we don’t lose them along the way."

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Wayside Chapel doesn't have clients, it has visitors, the reverend explains. One visitor was able to receive several weeks' accommodation at Coogee's Crowne Plaza, including a fortnight in a room overlooking the beach.

"He's come back and said, 'I want to get housing. I feel so much better, it's helped me understand that having somewhere to live gives me some stability that I don't have'." Stability, adds the reverend, can lead to improved relationships and a sense of purpose, and it's why they're fighting to get him accommodation again.

Rosa says one of her cafe regulars sleeps rough by choice, and that's not what defines him. "He's also part of our community, Wayside Bondi and Heart, because he gets a coffee from us every day." He helps them with small tasks, which gives him a sense of worth and individuality – as homeless people are often made to feel invisible. "What Wayside does and what Heart Café does is we recognise them, and we say hello and they stop becoming invisible, they become a name and a person and … that's huge for people," she says.

Responding to someone as a human – whether it's a mother who had to sacrifice her kid's birthday money or a person who chooses to sleep on the street – is fundamentally what Heart Cafe is about.

"COVID has changed who Wayside looks after or walks alongside. Every day is a new challenge for people," she says.

Next week, demand for the organisation's help could increase by a hundred-fold – or it might not. "We just have to be ready," says Rosa.

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Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres over three consecutive nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm. The show will be available at SBS On Demand after the broadcast, including in subtitled Simplified Chinese and Arabic.

Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless

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