Out in the cold

Bureaucratic buck-passing is threatening to leave Yarra Ranges’ homeless out in the cold.

Yarra Ranges Council shut down the Stable One Winter Shelter on Tuesday 20 August.

Stable One partnered with churches to provide temporary accommodation for the past two winters, giving 56 men and women in the Yarra Ranges the chance to come in from the cold.

But the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) advised the council that the churches would need a temporary occupancy permit to take part this year, the Mail reported in May.

So the council advocated to the State Government for changes to building regulations for winter shelters.

In a statement on 23 August, the council said that Planning Minister Richard Wynne had in response confirmed that any organisation wishing to accommodate – temporarily or permanently – needed to hold the relevant occupancy permits.

The council was made aware on Tuesday night that the Winter Shelter was operating.

“Unfortunately, based on the previous advice from the VBA, the council had no choice but to ask them to stop operating until an occupancy permit was in place,” it said.

Stable One managing director Jenny Willetts said the VBA was “the only one standing in the way”.

She said the Winter Shelter went ahead following legal advice that partner churches were not in breach of their occupancy permits.

“Though guests are given the opportunity to sleep on a camp bed, it is not a kind of private lodging,” Ms Willetts said.

“The limited scope, scale and duration of the program – 13 nights of 365 in each church – precludes any inconsistency between the use of the church and its classification as an assembly building.

“We call upon local councils, state government and the VBA to take a common sense approach and allow shelter at the worst time of the year to be available to the most vulnerable.”

But a spokesperson for the VBA said councils had the ability to approve this type of temporary use.

“The Yarra Ranges have chosen to apply an interpretation of the Building Act 1993, the effect of which will not allow the temporary use of these buildings by the Stable One charity,” she said.

“It appears that with the volunteers supervising people over night, there is a management strategy in place to maintain safety and amenity.”

Yarra Ranges Mayor Tony Stevenson reiterated that the council’s actions were based on VBA advice.

“We’re bound by the State Government’s legislation so we hope the Planning Minister looks into a review of the act with some urgency,” he said.

“The Building Act requires fire safety equipment upgrades and essential safety measures to be implemented on a building to make it eligible for a temporary occupation.

“For groups offering one night of accommodation in a local church, the cost of those works just isn’t feasible.

“The act provides little flexibility for groups utilising community buildings for very short-term relief services.”