General Features

Coats for the homeless

Kairos Volume 24, Issue 10

Edwina Hall

BRAVING the biting winter cold of Melbourne without a coat is unimaginable for many of us. For the homeless of Victoria, it is often sadly a reality.
Two years ago, the Order of Malta, which is celebrating its 900th anniversary this year, began the Coats for the Homeless program in Victoria.
From April to September each year, members of the Order, together with volunteers, travel alongside the St Vincent de Paul and Salvation Army soup vans each week, distributing coats to very grateful recipients in Melbourne’s city streets, and the Dandenong and Springvale area.
The coats are specially designed for sleeping rough. They cost about $30 each and are waterproof both inside and out; new, warm and light so the homeless people can carry them easily to wherever they may be sleeping at the time.
In Victoria last year, 350 coats were handed out by the Order of Malta. This year, 2500 coats will be distributed by the Order Australia-wide.
The vice-president of the Order of Malta in Victoria, Sir James Gobbo AC CVO KStl QC, said the Victorian arm of this program took a very hands-on approach.
‘On a typical night we go out with a mix of full members and volunteers and we generally carry about 10 coats with us,’ Sir James said.
‘We engage in ordinary conversation while the [homeless] people are having a bite to eat and we soon ascertain which ones are actually sleeping rough.
‘The important thing for our volunteers is the personal engagement. We prefer to be in a program that is hands on because that experience is really living out Gospel values and it is strongly commended to us by the head of the Order of Malta Grand Prince Master Fra’ Matthew Festing.
‘It’s very important to understand that some of the coats that are given to these people for winter wear are wool or a mixture of something that is of a character that gets wet, damp and musty very quickly; so, if you sleep on wet grass with a coat like that, it’s really no good in a few days.’
Sir James said the homeless people who received the coats were really touched by this program, as was made evident by an email the Order of Malta in Victoria received recently: ‘I have been homeless for some time. I was at the soup van at “Hanover” in Southbank, Melbourne, tonight and I was given one of your black coats, which is very warm and will keep out the wind, as the weather is getting colder … I am very grateful and very appreciative of it. This is just to say thank you. I will look after it and put it to good use.’
Sir James said one of the things he had learnt from taking part in this program was that the provision of large blocks of accommodation for homeless people was problematic and that the ideal is to have smaller establishments.
‘You simply cannot characterise [the homeless] as fitting in a mould. To see the diversity of the people gives you a deeper appreciation of the problem.
‘These people are denied the normal supports most people have of a family that will assist them and stand by; they are the people that most require the help of the community.
‘In caring for them, we make ourselves more compassionate. It’s very important that the charitable voluntary sector take the lead in this. If we handball it to the government, it necessarily has a bureaucratic element. It’s the ideal place for non-profit organisations to take the lead.’
When I asked Sir James why he did this work, he quoted Grand Prince Master Fra’ Matthew Festing: ‘All these acts, however small, of kindness and of love, and of consistency and commitment, are what lights the world and what brings warmth and hope to those in need. Every day you reflect the 900-year-old mission of the Order of Malta to care for the sick and the poor, no matter who they are.’
Coordinator and volunteer of the Coats for the Homeless program, Alicia Deak said the program in Victoria had grown greatly this year, with students from Newman College at Melbourne University, Mannix College at Monash University and ACU students from the new Faculty of Law school volunteering with the program.
‘Last year, we had 25 to 30 students at Newman participating and this year it has increased to about 50 students. I think the students feel they are becoming more knowledgeable helping out with a problem that is happening here in Melbourne,’ Alicia said.
‘For me, faith and service go hand in hand. Becoming more aware of what’s going on and the different lives that people experience makes me realise how privileged I am just by having a roof over my head.
‘I see [my work with this program] as an extension of my faith, not just an obligation to the community, but to being a Catholic and what it means to live out the different values.’
For further details, and information about the Order's 900th anniversary, visit

Statistics on homelessness:
  • In Victoria, more than 22,000 people were recorded as homeless on Census night in 2011. They included people sleeping outside or in impoverished dwellings, sleeping temporarily with friends or relatives, staying in boarding houses or staying in government-funded crisis or temporary accommodation or severely crowded dwellings.
  • Nationally, more than half of all people needing immediate accommodation were turned away in 2011.
  • About 6130 Victorians aged between 12 and 25 have nowhere to call home.
  • Almost 60 per cent of homelessness service users are under the age of 25.
  • More than 26,000 children accompanied their families to homelessness support services in 2010-11, the highest number ever recorded in Australia.
  • The 2011 Census reported that while Indigenous people make up only 0.5 per cent of the Victorian population, they account for 4 per cent of the homeless population.

Council for Homeless Persons.

Photo: Coats for the Homeless recipient with Sir James Gobbo. Courtesy of Alicia Deak.