Jane Armstrong, A Force on Our Streets
Jane Armstrong (Class of 1993) is a fierce advocate for homeless people in Perth. With a background in mental health, Jane has seen the number of homeless people in Western Australia grow at too fast a rate.
We recently sat down with Jane to chat with her about the organisation she runs Homelessness We Care WA.
Why did you start Homelessness We Care WA?
I’ve always worked with homeless people. As a mental health nurse, I often found a number of our patients were homeless. I was always confused as to why we weren’t doing more for them. An opportunity presented itself for us to babysit the Homelessness We Care organisation for eight weeks. Two friends of ours were running it at the time. It was basically just two ladies in their 70s who took donated food from Lawley’s Bakery, put it out on a table and let people go for it.
We took over the organisation full time in September 2015. One of the driving reasons for us was that there was a gap. Yes, definitely a gap. Also, my stepson, William, was nine and addicted to PlayStation. He was not in touch with reality. He woke up with an American accent one day and couldn’t get rid of it. As a mental health nurse, I was really disturbed by that. We decided we would embrace this opportunity and show William some of the reality of life. It was tough to start with. We were self-funded. It cost us $150 a week to be able to feed people. We began with 14 homeless folks. Now it’s sometimes between 200 – 250, and sadly it’s growing by the day.
How do you not feel like you want to do everything, help everyone?
You do, but you learn to separate yourself through being a mental health nurse because you hear some awful stuff. Also, we really didn’t have much choice in that. We had to learn very quickly.
What do you love most about what you do?
Seeing our folks, seeing our regular street friends, and giving us a big cuddle because they are like extended family. We’ve known a lot of them since 2015.
I love seeing our volunteers. They are so selfless. A lady came down recently and organised the complete service and funding for it. The lady said, “I’ll just do the whole service”. And she did, single-handedly. She made nearly 200 salads. 200 cold meat salads, and sandwiches. 200! She organised care packs, cooked biscuits, and muffins. Hats off too, I mean, to cook that much! That would have cost her a bomb, but it’s not about the money. It’s also about the effort and the love and care. Everything was packaged so beautifully.
How has COVID-19 affected things for your organisation?
I miss having kids come and help. Some kids are very privileged, so it’s great to teach them about the world’s reality. It’s so easy for someone to develop a mental illness, a drug addiction, or find themselves in a domestic violence situation. Suddenly, they are on the street. It’s such a fine line these days. With the increases in the cost of petrol and living costs now, any of us could find ourselves homeless. When we first started, we had 10-year-olds come down and help. We encouraged them to take a meal or grab a cup of hot chocolate and go and sit with the homeless.
Do you have any things you do for your own self-care?
Absolutely. I read, listen to music, meditate when I can. Play with the dogs. I love spending time in the garden. I don’t get to exercise as much as I’d like to. There are so many tricks of the trade. But I guess it’s making sure that you refuel somehow, regardless of how that works when you’re spent. We’ve got amazing volunteers who support us, believe in us, and step up if we need it. We’re very fortunate.
What or who inspires you to do what you do?
Rosa Speranza was a shining example when I came to the College. Her absolute authenticity. Rosa was a teacher here when I was at school and was probably only 10 years older than us. Rosa taught me Religious Education. It was her whole attitude towards service; that it was part of your life. My experience at Santa Maria was wonderful. The role modelling of the teachers I had was outstanding. I was either going to be a cop or a nurse; I became a nurse. It’s all sort of gone on from there. Mental health was always my passion.
How did the relationship with Homeless We Care and Santa Maria begin?
We were running a service on a Tuesday night, and Rosa had brought some girls from Mercedes down to cook a BBQ for kids playing street soccer. She bought over the rest of the food to us, we recognised each other, and it started from there. The relationship was initially with Mercedes, but when Rosa moved to Santa Maria, she started off the program there. It’s been this beautiful friendship.
Tell us a little about the help you’ve received from Santa Maria.
As well as weekly cook-ups and food delivery, over the last three or four Christmases, we’ve used the Santa Maria kitchen to cook food for our Christmas Banquet. Last year we fed 375 people a full sit-down dinner of ham, turkey, roast vegetables, gravy, pudding, and custard. They also enjoy soft drinks, crackers, lollies on the table. Our first Christmas in 2015, we catered for 100 but ended up feeding 200.
What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you?
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
What in life is beautiful to you?
That’s simple. Everything! Everything is beautiful. I mean, look at this view (Jane points to the view of Perth and the Swan River). Pretty amazing. I think it’s important to find something to be grateful for every day.
If you could start all over again. What would you do differently?
How can our alumni become involved if they’d like to help?
We aim to feed 200 people every Tuesday. We are always in need of people to help cook. We always need volunteers, care packs and donations. If you can help cook, it doesn’t mean you need to cook for 200 people, do whatever you can. You could get a group of your old classmates together and cook something. Every bit helps. You might even like to donate a chicken or some other protein, cook a lasagna or curry.
The other way alumni can help is to share through their networks. Share the work we’re doing. We’re not just about volunteers and money. It’s also about educating people about homelessness.
Finally, if there is just one thing you could tell us, what would that be?
The biggest thing I always say is that if you see a homeless person, don’t just walk by, and ignore them. Say hello. You never know; just by acknowledging them, you could save a life. They may have been in a very dark place, thinking about taking their life.
Thank you for sitting down with us Jane. Hopefully, we can raise some awareness around homelessness in WA and inspire some more people to get involved.