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Most of us have never been homeless or even had to grapple with the frightening prospect. The closest most of us have ever come to homelessness is walking past someone sitting on the footpath in a busy city street, sometimes with a sign and a hat, cup or other object for passers-by to drop some money into. Few passers-by do.

Annie Wakeford, on the other hand, is well acquainted with homelessness. She’s had experience with it in her life, and for the past 14 years, she’s helped elderly Victorians experiencing homelessness get into a home. Sometimes it’s the first home of their own they’ve ever had.

She does this as a Tenancy Management Worker at Wintringham, a not-for-profit organisation driven by a firm conviction “that the right to aged care services is a fundamental social justice issue and should not be dependent upon a person’s wealth, behaviour or religion”. In other words, Wintringham regards the elderly people who are homeless as elderly citizens first, with a right to aged care like anyone else in their sunset years.

“The sole motivating philosophy at Wintringham is that of social justice,” explains Wintringham’s founder and CEO, Bryan Lipmann AM. “We believe that all elderly people, regardless of poverty or lifestyle, have the right to live an independent and dignified life.” Annie puts it even more succinctly – she says “Wintringham looks after the most vulnerable and needy”.

Annie’s been with the organisation for 14 years, having left behind a successful career as a hairdresser. She says what drew her to Wintringham all those years ago was “their motto – respect, dignity and rights” – and it’s the same thing that still motivates her today.

This is part of what makes Wintringham unique; it doesn’t run ‘shelters’, like the notorious tenements frequented by homeless activist Tiny Wintringham in whose honour the organisation is named. Rather, Wintringham gives homeless people a place to call their own, complete with services suited to their individual needs along with a strong community spirit.

Annie says there’s nothing more rewarding than signing a tenancy agreement with a Wintringham client and handing over the keys to their new home. “It gives them a new lease on life,” she says. “They get on their feet and are very house proud!”

Such joy has often been few and far between in the lives of Wintringham’s clients. “Everybody has a story,” says Annie, and the stories of the people she’s worked with have made her laugh, cry and shake her head in disbelief.

Annie relates one heart-breaking story of a client who experienced, along with his siblings, the nightmare of being abandoned at an orphanage. A moment of relief and elation arrived when his mother returned some time later, but were dashed when she inexplicably collected only his siblings and left him behind. He never saw any of his family again.

“Most of us can’t even imagine what it’s like, going through such tragic experiences,” Annie says. “I wish people were more understanding instead of being judgemental.”

Such back stories make the resilience and positive attitude of Wintringham’s clients all the more impressive. The Wintringham website has a wonderful section called ‘Legends of Wintringham’, which keeps alive the memory of the colourful characters that have been part of this special community. Their stories are almost invariably bittersweet; ordinary people battered by extraordinary hardship, who find tailored care and support, solace and friendship in the end – a place to call home – thanks to Wintringham.

“There was one lady who’d been living in a run-down caravan with possums,” recalls Annie. “What made her stand out for me was her resilience and her great, positive outlook. She was always happy.”

Working at Wintringham is not without its challenges. Many clients have a mental or physical disability and, having lived an often primitive and isolated existence on the streets, lack the habits and home skills we take for granted, living as we do in our highly organised society. Annie says she’s lost count of how many times she’s arranged for maintenance work at someone’s place, only to have them fail to be at home for the appointment.

Still, it’s all part of the job, and Annie gives the impression she wouldn’t swap working at Wintringham for anywhere else. “It’s taught me compassion. It’s taught me how to communicate better. It’s taught me understanding, because you never know what life’s going to throw at you.”

Asked if she sees an end to the issue of homelessness, Annie is not optimistic: “In fact, I feel it’s getting worse.” The data backs up her outlook. According to Homelessness Australia, the latest (2016) Census found 18,625 Australians over the age of 55 were experiencing homelessness – a figure that has grown by 27.7% in just five years.

Wintringham remains like a beacon of hope. “Starting with a fire in our belly,” its website declares, “our collective passion for social justice has endured.” Late last year, Wintringham opened an additional 10 independent living units in Geelong, on land donated by the Alexander Miller Estate of which Equity Trustees is a co-trustee.

Thankfully, there are people like Annie to help elderly disadvantaged Australians live the rest of their lives with dignity, comfort and friendship.

As for the rest of us, perhaps now more than ever, it’s important we show understanding and compassion – as Annie says, “everybody has a story”, and no-one chooses to be lonely, vulnerable or forgotten as they age.