Public housing residents, with the support of cohealth, are operating a ‘free op shop’ on the ground floor of Collingwood’s high-rise towers with residents able to take and leave items of clothing, shoes and toys.
After a high-rise security guard brought in a pair of near-new sneakers to pass on, the on-site cohealth team put a callout on social media for clean, excellent condition donations and purchased clothes racks.
Residents employed onsite by cohealth – called Health Concierges – operate the ‘free op shop’ initiative, which has seen hundreds of items of clothing, shoes, linen and toys distributed to people who might not otherwise be able to afford them.
Among the most popular items are culturally appropriate clothing for the Muslim residents, men’s suits, warm coats in winter, shoes and kids’ clothes.
“People might need a suit for a job interview, or an appointment, or their kids have just grown out of their shoes. They stop by the stall and browse the racks, and our Health Concierges help if they’re looking for something specific,” says cohealth community health nurse, Sally Plunkett, who helps oversee the project.
“Residents often stop for a chat while they’re looking at the clothes, which then leads onto other conversations about their health or social support needs,” she says.
“The key is to display the items really beautifully on racks in the foyer, and to make sure that everything is clean and in very good condition. We show great respect for the clothes and people appreciate that,” she says.
The free op shop has attracted customers from outside the public housing too, with people who sleep rough in the area dropping in to pick up warm clothes and shoes.
Residents also donate items, adding to the sustainability of the project.
cohealth has been based-onsite at public housing towers across the north and west of Melbourne since the pandemic struck, working on projects that improve the health and wellbeing of the community.
cohealth says that resident feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and they are considering replicating the idea in other towers.
cohealth Health Concierge Nura Awata is one of the residents who has been involved in the clothes exchange. She said:
“It’s not only for the residents of this tower, but also the other towers that are nearby, and even some of the units.”
“When people walk through the estate, they drop in to the building and collect what they need.
“The people they are so glad. When they come inside the building, they might stop and admire a jacket. Then when they find out it’s free they are very happy.
“Some of the clothes are still new, with tags. It’s for women, men, kids. We have a variety of things. Scarves for people who wear hijab. We have a winter section – all the things made of wool and knitted. For now we are collecting warm clothes because winter is coming.”
“Residents also donate items. We inspect each item carefully. Then we categorise it – women, men, kids, winter.”
“It’s become so popular now, and sometimes people come to the Health Concierge desk just to ask for shoes or a jacket. It’s a very good chance to make engagement with people. For example when we are vaccinating people onsite, we can let them know that service is there after they’ve picked up the item they were looking for.
“Yesterday a woman came with her kids looking for clothes for them, and we were able to tell her about the upcoming kids vaccination pop-up that will be happening in March. She took a flier away and was happy about that.”
Nura is Eritrean, and arrived in Australia via Sudan in August 2019. She and her two kids have lived at the Collingwood high-rise for 2 ½ years. Her children attend the local school in grade 3 and 4.
“I’m so lucky to be here. I’m living in peace and it’s safe with my kids. My parents are here too, and live in the building, as well my siblings.
“Since arriving I have completed my certificate 3 in aged care. I’ve been working for cohealth as a Health Concierge for 2 months, and also for a few months in 2020. I love my job.”