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Whittlesea Community House offers free legal, financial and mental health advice

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By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

Whittlesea Community House’s Fix It Friday sessions are gaining momentum after being forced to a phone service during lockdown, addressing the high levels of mental health issues in the area.

After makeshift sessions were available via the phone last year, the sessions are back at the community house once a month, the next of which is on Friday.

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The sessions offer a broad range of face-to-face support services including legal advice, victims of crime support and financial counselling.

Representatives from more than 20 organisations set up desks in the house, and residents visit any time from 10am to 1pm for streamlined support.

“Before COVID everyone was here, it was like a justice fiesta,” manager Mary-Lynn Griffith said.

“The beauty of having everyone on site is that you can tell your story once to three different people because you can have the legal, social work and financial counselling [at once].”

Ms Griffith launched the monthly gatherings in 2019 to bring together support services under one roof, and provide an alternative to travelling long distances or being on hold for phone advice.

“This is a unique program that we’ve come up with because of where we’re situated,” she said.

“As rural-fringe community, even though we’re technically part of metro Melbourne, people in our community don’t have access to services the same as if you were in an actual regional town like Seymour, or in the actual big metropolitan area like Epping.

“We also find that our community doesn’t have access to services when they’re online a lot of the time and often don’t have credit on their phones to be on hold at a call centre forever, so we think all of those access issues underlie mental health problems in the area.

“If you can’t access Centrelink, if you can’t access legal help, then mental health issues just build and build and build.”

Josephine Southwell, project manager at LIFT Stepped Care Model for Mental Health at Banyule Community Health, said trauma was prevalent in the area among the many settled asylum seekers and Black Saturday bushfire victims, and had been heightened by the pandemic.

The City of Whittlesea’s COVID-19 impact report states that due to the city’s large culturally and linguistically diverse community, financial stability and poor mental and physical health as a result of the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people on temporary visas and asylum seekers and women.

Ms Southwell said the City of Whittlesea had experienced an increase in social isolation and anxiety in the past 12 months, as well as many small businesses struggling due to the recent effects of JobKeeper expiring.

A LIFT’s representative attends each Fix It Friday, and can assign caseworkers and refer people to counsellors.  
“She’s able to be a face to enable that warm handover into the program,” Ms Southwell said.

“When you get your caseworker, you can get access to a whole lot of other services that will help with underlying issues like homelessness, domestic violence and things like that, so they work really well hand in hand with other support services.”

Also present at Fix It Fridays are representatives from government organisation My Aged Care; the Expresso Legal coffee cart offering free coffee and free legal advice; financial counselling; social workers; fines and infringement assistance; a representative for the Merri Health Victims Assistance Program; Member for Yan Yean Danielle Green’s office is available on the phone; and supervised La Trobe University law students offer help writing wills and completing paperwork for powers of attorney and guardianship.

Fix It Fridays is on the fourth Friday of every month from 10am to 1pm, with the next on April 23.

People can turn up on the day; or ring Whittlesea Community House ahead if you have a potentially difficult or time-consuming issue you need addressed. Wifi, computers and language interpreters are available. For more information call the house on 9716 3361.

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