Building resilience after crisis
21 July 2020
We’re only halfway through 2020 but Australians have already seen disaster after disaster unfold. With extended drought overlapping the devastating ‘Black Summer’ bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic has also compounded plans to recover and continues to severely impact lives.
But while 2020 has been a year of hardship, frustration and loss for many, it may also emerge as the year that built the resilience, compassion and understanding Australia needs to forge a new path. These disasters have largely brought out the best in humanity, with communities joining forces to support those most impacted.
While speaking at a Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal webinar recently, Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of Resilience NSW, highlighted the lessons that have emerged out of the last six months. He shared not only how Resilience NSW will be looking to amplify the successes in the future but also identified the weaknesses in infrastructure and areas for improvement.
As commissioner of the Rural Fire Service in NSW during the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires of 2019-2020, Shane emerged as a strong leader in a time of crisis. Widely praised for his empathy and composure during one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons, he demonstrated genuine strength and incredible compassion in equal measure.
During the webinar, Shane spoke of the emotional and psychological wellbeing of people impacted by disaster – of the trauma, challenges and despair – and acknowledged “the human dimension” that must come into decision-making as they plan a path towards recovery. Emphasising that there are real people behind every figure of property, or fencing, or livelihoods, he put the focus squarely back on their needs as they recover.
When approaching recovery and building resilience after crises, Shane highlighted that good leadership, actions and decisions must be underpinned by care – authenticity, mutual respect, empathy and humility being essential to effective recovery that is inclusive, effective and non-judgemental.
Reflections on support
Growing up in a violent home with his father suffering from alcohol addiction, Shane became disengaged as a teenager but soon found structure and an extended family in the fire service that ultimately became his career. Having a long-time affiliation with the RFS, the Salvos have also played a significant role in his life over many years.
“For me personally, I can’t remember a time in my life where the Salvos haven’t played a part in my family or the things that I do,” Shane shared during the webinar. “At a personal level, I’ve also been the beneficiary of family counselling and support – not just me personally but my family. We’ve had some tough times, some traumatic times. Being able to access the professional services, the support services, at the Salvos has been pivotal in helping us get through all manner of challenges over the decades.”
Shane’s role heading up Resilience NSW is to establish measures to prevent, prepare and recover from a crisis. He will be doing this by coordinating emergency management policy, service delivery and all aspects of disaster recovery.
The Salvation Army’s services and programs supporting vulnerable people in crisis echoes this approach. Resilience is what The Salvation Army aims to build in clients by providing the wrap around support services required for them to recover from their own crises – be it disaster, financial hardship, homelessness, addiction or family violence. Salvos crisis and long-term accommodation, emergency relief, recovery services and outreach programs effectively strive to support long-lasting transformation. Preventative programs and services also offer a layer of care that seeks to stop hardship from escalating into crisis.
Responding to crisis
While most people will experience some personal crises in their lives – others find themselves going through crisis upon crisis, with little opportunity to bounce back before the next one hits. 2020 has shown us that no one is immune to this. The emotions many Australians have experienced this year – anxiety, a lack of control over what’s happening, isolation and frustration – are what many were feeling long before the drought, fires and pandemic dominated headlines and lives.
In moments of personal crises, knowing there is a support structure in place to give people hope that they can recover is critical.
Major Brendan Nottle from The Salvation Army’s Project 614 in Melbourne works on the frontline assisting people in their moments of crisis. While his service is always in demand, he has seen this triple over the months of the COVID-19 pandemic and believes we are yet to see the full impact.
“Our sense in The Salvation Army is there’s a tsunami of need that’s coming our way,” he says. “We’re not through this yet and it’s not just going to hit us for a month or for a few months. We believe for the next couple of years we’re going to be hit hard as a nation – where people need practical help, but they also need ongoing emotional support.”
Caring for the city’s homeless as COVID-19 took hold was a priority for Brendan’s team, as the risks posed to this vulnerable group of people in crisis were incredibly high. Working with police, local council and other agencies, they got 216 people off the streets and into hotel accommodation provided by the state government.
However, working with people experiencing homelessness is not simply a matter of finding accommodation and providing meals, those who are traumatised and alone may be resistant to any offers of assistance. It can take time to break down defences or establish trust in people who have been through tragedy.
“When we stop and think about the values of The Salvation Army – and the key one is transformation – we understand the only way we’re going to bring about transformation with people is if we commit to them and commit to doing life with them for the long term. Not just for a few weeks, not just for a few months, but for the long term,” says Brendan.
That commitment means never giving up on someone, maintaining connections and being available whenever they are ready to receive care.
Making connections through compassion and care
For over 18 months a woman had been sleeping outside a 7/11 store not far from Project 614’s premises at 69 Bourke Street. Over that time, no homelessness service, including The Salvation Army, was able to build a connection with her. “Not only did she refuse to take up the offers of our accommodation, but she also refused to utter one single word to anyone,” says Brendan. “There this woman sat day after day, night after night, completely and utterly on her own apart from her little dog.”
When the COVID-19 outbreak first took hold in Australia, Brendan received a call about this woman who was extremely distressed. Clutching her lifeless dog to her chest, she was refusing to let go of her furry companion that was all she had in the world. Workers from Project 614 sat with her for hours as she mourned, eventually coaxing her to let go of the dog. Their support continued and the next day she agreed to go into accommodation.
“Remarkably, because of the connection that had been built, she now comes to our office every single day and brings in other people sleeping rough in the city and says; ‘you know what you did for me? can you do it for this person too?’ Every single day. She’s our greatest referrer,” says Brendan.
“So, the woman that refused to have anything to do – not just with our agency, but with any agency – is now referring the most vulnerable in our community to our service so that they too are given support to get off the streets.”
Pathway to resilience
Authenticity, mutual respect, empathy and humility – underpinned by care – are attributes employed every day by Salvos working with individuals in crisis. Not simply a matter of meeting material needs, care is about restoring hope and committing to doing life with people for the long term.
Just as Shane Fitzsimmons emphasised there are real people behind every figure of property loss or impacted livelihoods resulting from the bushfire disaster – putting the focus back on individual needs – the same is true for every homelessness statistic or call to family violence hotlines. There is a human dimension behind these figures – stories of trauma and battling through, of loneliness, of reaching despair but calling out for hope, of feeling deep shame and unworthy of love and care.
Providing a network of support to build resilience in individuals so they may overcome the challenges they have experienced helps to bring about true and lasting transformation. And during those times when people may struggle to bounce back, to find that resilience within, Salvos programs and services are there to walk alongside them for as long as they need.