Mandy Booker was taught the value of community early on in life – a vital grounding for her demanding work in homelessness services.
“I’ve always worked with community, so I have always had a passion for volunteer work,” she said.
“I do lots of volunteer work currently, being the president of soccer clubs and things like that. (I’m) really community-minded and really passionate about giving back to the community.”
Ms Booker, 43, is manager of Wollongong Emergency Family Housing and the Wollongong Homeless Hub.
Opened in October 2013, the Wollongong Homeless Hub is a one-stop-shop for homelessness resources.
The specialist service provides support, information, referral and advocacy to homeless people or those at risk of homelessness.
The service currently employs two full-time staff and six part-time/casual staff.
Corrimal resident Ms Booker has been working at the Homeless Hub for five years, including the past two-and-a-half years as manager.
Previously she worked as an early childhood educator for 15 years, before going into youth services. The latter included working in a youth refuge. She said her current role is one whereby “every day is a surprise”.
“It is a changing environment, so there is never a day where you come in and you think something is going to go one way,” Ms Booker said.
“It generally doesn't go that way. So you need to be flexible (in service delivery) and you need to be able to roll with whatever is coming your way.”
Ms Booker said the challenges within her current role included that there simply isn’t enough affordable housing in the Illawarra.
The Homeless Hub estimates that more than 1600 people are homeless on any given night in the Illawarra.
“That’s one of the bigger challenges for us, to work with clients knowing there's not enough properties to actually house them in.”
Conversely, she said there are highly rewarding aspects.
“We’ve seen the most amazing journeys that people have been on, and how resilient people actually are,” Ms Booker said.
“That inspires me every day... Not only the clients, but my staff. The work that they do, and the amount of dedication that I see within this entire sector, but particularly within my team just inspires me every day to do what we do.”
Despite all the positive work being done within the homelessness services sector, the number of gaps in the system remains a daily source of frustration.
“But for us here, and for me to lead my team, it’s also about making sure that they remain hopeful,” a visibly emotional Ms Booker said.
“Because we can’t give our clients hope if we don't have it. So it's really important to me that I instill in my entire team that every day you need to find that silver lining, and to keep going.
“Those gaps will only get smaller if we actually continue to work to make them smaller... I’m very passionate about not just saying, ‘well, that’s the way it is’.
“We always need to be aiming to change that.”
It was recently announced that the apartment site at 75 Keira Street, Wollongong will be used as supported accommodation for the Wollongong Homeless Hub.
It will offer crisis accommodation, short-term transitional housing (up to six months) and long-term transitional (up to two years).
“For us going forward it's really about making sure that our clients are receiving wraparound service, and that we have people that are coming through the system that are (otherwise) falling through the gaps,” she said of the hub’s future.
“We shouldn’t have people in need like we do, and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed on all levels.”
The service is located at 1/1 Young Street, Wollongong.
Read more: The hidden faces of the Illawarra's homeless