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Mental Health & Housing: living in hell at subsidised rates

When Peter moved into the Housing Commission flat in Werrington, he was looking to make a new start. He’d been living in public housing or five years, but wanted to move up to Sydney and look for a job.

One day he found an online swap site for public housing tenants.  The low-rise, red-brick block, a few kilometres from Penrith in Western Sydney, seemed like a good place to begin his new life.

My first impression was that it’s a bit of a rough area, but I thought, give it a fresh start and see what I can make of it,” says Peter.

But within weeks of moving in, Peter was caught in a vicious campaign of threats, harassment and victimisation from his neighbours.

Peter’s case manager at Housing NSW would later tell him that Housing had hoped he’d be a “peaceful influence” in the block of flats. What he did not tell Peter when he moved in was that one of his new neighbours had served time in prison for a double murder.

Peter himself had had a history of depression and heavy drinking. Two of the other tenants in the block were drinkers. In his first weeks at the new flat, Peter would sometimes join them when they got on the grog.

But then Peter decided he wanted to dry out. He started seeing a counsellor at the Drug and Alcohol Centre at Nepean Hospital and stopped drinking. He was determined to get well.

But his former drinking mates didn’t like the fact that he’d quit. He was no longer one of them. They’d start drinking early in the day — the local bottle shop opens at 6am — and yell abuse at Peter from outside his front door.

In November 2009, the death threats began.  One of the neighbours confronted Peter one day outside the flat .

I’m gonna burn your unit down,” he screamed at him, “I’m gonna throw a fragmentation grenade in there and then I’m gonna burn your car.”  He then menaced Peter with a chunk of concrete.

Peter went to the police — but initially they just told him to ignore the abuse and threats. Other neighbours who’d witnessed the threats and abuse were too frightened to give evidence.

Peter filed complaints with the Housing office in Penrith. He asked his case manager at Housing NSW if he could get him a transfer out of Werrington. Nothing happened.

People are allowed to run amok,” says Peter, “Housing NSW gives no consideration to the safety of tenants.”

After repeated complaints to the police, Peter eventually succeeded in obtaining an AVO against one of the neighbours who was threatening him.

Despite this, Housing NSW refused to move him. Peter told the ACIJ that Housing NSW “made me feel like I was the bad guy”.

His case worker from Nepean Hospital wrote to Housing NSW on several occasions imploring them to move his client, but again they refused.

A spokesperson from Housing NSW told the ACIJ that the local Housing office had “worked with Peter concerning his support needs”, and that Peter’s perception of the issues he faced was “not in common with his neighbours”.

Peter says that as the threats escalated, he felt isolated and downtrodden and feared for his life.

YouTube Preview Image

Watch Peter’s video on his experiences with mental health and housing.

I felt very neglected, poorly done by, initially by the cops, but more so by Housing NSW that they didn’t have any measures to take to deal with these people to correct bad behaviour.”

He began to contemplate suicide.

I was actually starting to think maybe I’m better off dead because no one is helping me.  People make promises but they’re hollow promises.  I was starting to feel victimised to the point where I was thinking maybe I should just get hit by a truck.”

Eventually he fled his public housing flat and is now living elsewhere.

Peter’s story is by no means unusual on public housing estates in Western Sydney. The ACIJ has spoken to several other public housing tenants with mental health issues who did not want to be named and who have experienced repeated threats and victimisation.

Their accounts are supported by mental health case workers in western Sydney — but they too are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation by NSW Health, which employs them or funds the NGOs for which they work.

Debbie Robertson, a community activist who campaigned for the Greens in Mt Druitt in the NSW state election, says it’s a classic case of bureaucratic buck passing.

I believe it is both a housing and mental health issue,” says Robertson, “this is an area with the one of the highest rates of mental illness in NSW but neither department will take responsibility, let alone work together.”

Robertson, who’s lived in Mt Druitt for more than 28 years, has direct experience of what it’s like to grapple with the bureaucracy. She has an adult son who suffers from schizophrenia and has had difficulties in previous dealings with housing authorities.

He lived in public housing several years ago, but it was broken into and vandalised repeatedly,” she says.

He complained to the Department of Housing several times, but nothing was done. He has now moved back home and is under our care. But he is one of the few lucky ones who had the support of his family.

Others are stuck in the cycle. They end up in jail or become homeless.”

Guarantees going nowhere

There is already a bureaucratic structure in place that is supposed to help public housing tenants who are living with mental illness.

The Joint Guarantee of Service (JGOS) is a partnership between Housing, NSW Health, Family and Community Services, and other government and non-government agencies,  which promises to “assist and enhance the well-being of existing social housing tenants with mental illnesses”.

The JGOS operations manual runs to 30 pages and contains detailed guidelines on how to set up committees and run meetings.

A NSW Housing spokesperson told the ACIJ that “Housing NSW is working in partnership with NSW Health and the non-government sector on the Housing and Accommodation Support Initiative (HASI) and is currently developing a Housing and Mental Health Agreement.  HASI supports over 1000 people with mental illness across NSW.”

But as reported yesterday in Crikey, demand for HASI places far outstrips supply.

And in the public housing estates of Mt Druitt, St Mary’s, Telopea, Blacktown, Werrington, and Seven Hills, there is little sign that the Joint Guarantee of Service is working.

Tomorrow: The major public health problem no one wants to know about.

Paul Farrell, Veronika Pitrová, Michael Davis, and Simona Suciu are reporters with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

Paul Farrell and Michael Davis are enrolled in the Journalism program at UTS.

Veronika Pitrová and Simona Suciu spent a semester at UTS on the Erasmus Mundus exchange program.

This special investigation is published in collaboration with Reportage Online, the magazine of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

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  • 1
    Valerie Pitty
    Posted Tuesday, 9 August 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    For many years I did telephone counselling for Lifeline and can confirm every detail of Peter’s story because I heard similar accounts from many anonymous callers. It appeared that it was government policy to “lump together” people with mental health, addiction, and behavioural problems, leading to great misery for many of the less aggressive or physically weaker tenants. There seemed to be little redress available, and little useful advice I could offer them. Certainly there were many Department of Housing tenants who were quite contented with their accomodation, but too many have to live with the bad conditions described in Peter’s account.

  • 2
    Posted Tuesday, 9 August 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    A few years back, the Housing Trust (SA) moved five families who were related to each other into our street. The families were all within one or two houses of each. They also all had severe problems with alcohol abuse and violence. In our area at that time, it was reasonably quiet from Monday to Wednesday, but from payday to Sunday occasional screaming matches, fights and property damage would occur. Once these five families were moved here, there were no relatively peaceful days. We had chaos 24/7.

    A number of residents complained to the Housing Trust, with no result. At least one couldn’t stand it and had to leave. Unable to leave, due to illness, I persisted with the Trust, especially about my next-door neighbour (it was the family on the other side of this neighbour who packed up and left) who was really quite frightening.

    The Housing Trust initially insisted that they never put related families with alcohol and violence issues in the same small street, let alone five of them with severe alcohol and violence problems. In the end, it came down to, “Yeah, I suppose we did do that”.

    Their response to my pleas for help about my violent and addicted neighbours?

    Come on, they’ve been evicted from everywhere else. This is the only place we’ve been able to keep them for that long.”

    Apparently our weeks of fear and protest, plus tying up just about all our local police resources, were considered “success” for the Housing Trust.

  • 3
    Wombat
    Posted Wednesday, 10 August 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article guys, solid journalism.

    Having worked in public housing for a brief stint (six months), I have some sympathy for the Housing bureaucrats. They are dealing with people who would be evicted without hestitation in the private rental market, and by all their own rules and policies should be evicted from public housing too - yet where would these people go? And imagine the outcry if the government decided to enforce their own eviction policies (I think something along those lines happened earlier this year in WA).

    It’s an awful business dealing with people who have nowhere else to live. I think in the end it boils down to how much money we as a society are prepared to pay to reduce homelessness. My opinion is that more would be better, but the public won’t stomach that - which is why harrassed public servants don’t have the time, training or experience to get the ‘perfect’ match of tenants in each building.

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