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March 7, 2023

A new gym keeping vulnerable South Australians fit and happy

Ashley and Melissa-Jean Marsh are not letting their housing status define their fitness. We speak to the pair ahead of the opening of Baptist Care SA’s gym for rough sleepers about how lifting weights lifts their spirits.

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  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins

Ashley speaks with CityMag while sitting atop a yellow exercise bike in the middle of Baptist Care SA’s makeshift gym, located on Whitmore Square.


Baptist Care SA Gym
11—13 Millers Court, Adelaide 5000
Mon—Thu: 10am ’til 3pm

Slated to open in April.

More info here

The wall behind Ashley has a mural of the Australian outback, featuring red hills, blue sky and green shrubs. As he pedals, sweat drips down his neck and darkens his grey superhero ‘Flash’ t-shirt. Like a mirage, Ashley suddenly takes the form of a professional cyclist competing in the Tour Down Under with the bush on his back.

Ashley chose the stationary bike for a reason. He has a passion for wheels.

“I’ve got an 18-speed mountain bike and I’ve got a bushwalker, like a big chopper pushbike,” he says.

“A real big pushbike. No gears or nothing.”

Ashley at Baptist Care’s Whitmore Square gym


Ashley has been couch surfing for 20 years. He’s originally from Queensland, but calls Western Australia home. He’s in South Australia because he says the wait list for housing is only about two years here, as opposed to 10 in WA.

He’s at the gym today because a pipe burst at his transitional housing accommodation, which a plumber is currently fixing.

Exercise gives Ashley mental clarity, and his taste in sports goes beyond cycling. He’s dabbled in swimming, yoga, tennis and squash.

Though these are solo sports, Ashley is looking forward to Baptist Care opening the next iteration of this gym in April – a staffed facility, where he’ll be able to exercise alongside peers and a coach. Like most people, he enjoys rallying support.

“Getting together as a team – mate. And having a gym instructor there, like a coach promoting you, and promoting your enthusiasm,” Ashley says. “That’s why I like coming to a gym.”

Baptist Care SA was recently awarded a $16,000 grant by the Adelaide City Council to run a yearlong program inviting vulnerable and homeless South Australians to exercise for free at its WestCare fitness facility.

On the day we visit, we see a ramshackle operation — there’s no aircon running, and the room is split in two by a couple of whiteboards — but we’re told this is a dummy set-up to demonstrate the proper gym’s potential.

Melissa-Jean Marsh says she is “fucked for this shit”, referring to exercise


The room has multiple hornet-yellow exercise bikes, a silver squat machine, a row machine and a press machine.

The Baptist Care gym originally opened in 2019 with eight people per day accessing the facilities. But the centre had to close at the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Baptist Care SA spokesperson tells CityMag they will use this new council grant to relaunch the exercise program, which has the overall aim of reducing “the barriers that Adelaide’s homeless population experience in accessing services”.

“We want to encourage our community (of people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness) to develop healthy habits and routines that build their health and wellbeing and, in turn, their sense of self-worth,” the spokesperson says.

I’d like to stay… me
—Melissa-Jean Marsh

This is another reason Ashley is looking forward to the new facility. “It would be good for me to keep mentally fit, physically fit and integrate with the community,” he says.

The gym sits alongside WestCare’s other health and wellbeing programs, such as the free pop-up vet clinic, free haircuts and free bicycle repair workshops.

The funding will be used to support certain activities in the gym, including:

  • fitness inductions led by University of South Australia physiotherapy students,
  • group fitness classes,
  • individual sessions administered by SACE physiotherapy students in tandem with personal training gym Pushing Performance,
  • and general gym use supervised by social work students.

Melissa-Jean Marsh


Melissa-Jean Marsh — who says she “camps” when we ask her about her housing status — is wearing a white visor and a bright pink tennis skirt. She moves frenetically between the exercise equipment, as though she can’t decide which machine to use.

Melissa was a swimmer when she was younger, and she says she’s looking forward to using the upcoming gym because she wants to be “fit and healthy”.

“I’d like to stay… me,” she says.

Gym buddies Ashley and Melissa-Jean Marsh

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