Over the past three days, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has documented the appalling conditions suffered by people living with mental illness in public housing in western Sydney.

Their testimonies, and those of the health workers who care for them, describe repeated harassment, victimisation and bullying by neighbours. Some have received death threats. Yet their pleas for help go unheeded by Housing NSW — who refuse to acknowledge any duty of care.

Today this special investigation looks at the plight of one especially vulnerable group — refugees. Many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of horrific experiences in their countries of origin.

But a study published recently in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that while traumatic experiences in their home country contributed to “substantial proportions” of psychological distress among refugees, their post-settlement experiences had an even greater effect on their mental health.

For some, these experiences include regular encounters with disruptive or abusive neighbours in public housing. Typically, however, those the ACIJ spoke to did so on condition that neither their names nor their stories be used, for fear they’d encounter further difficulties with neighbours or the authorities.

Others are in temporary accommodation or renting privately while they’re on the waiting list to get into public housing living.

Hama*, who arrived in Australia five years ago, is one of the thousands of Iraqi refugees the Australian government has accepted since it backed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Having developed severe schizophrenia somewhere between escaping his war-torn country and arriving in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, Hama is now living on a disability support pension under the Mental Health Plan. Unable to work, Hama’s housing options are limited.

As a result, he is living in a granny flat owned by a couple with serious domestic-violence issues. It’s an arrangement that Hama’s psychologist Dr Shameran Slewa-Younan says is unacceptable and detrimental to his condition: “He’s constantly listening to the fights, which obviously increases his amount of stress.”

Although not officially part of her role as a therapist, Slewa-Younan has tried to get Hama into public housing, without any luck. ” …’We’ll put you on the list but it’s about a 10 year wait’, that’s basically what they’ve said to him.”

Slewa-Younan, who is also a refugee mental health expert at the University of Western Sydney, says that many refugees suffering from pre- and post-migration mental illness are going untreated as they struggle with trying to secure long-term accommodation.

“When they come here, they’re faced with so many difficult challenges to adapt to. Often their mental health isn’t something they want to deal with at that moment, they just need to get a house, a roof over their head, income coming in, adapt to the customs, learn the language.”

Program manager of Anglicare Sydney’s Migrant and Refugee Service (MARS) Cheryl Webster says finding a home is central to the settlement process for refugees.

“If you don’t have a place to live, it’s a real issue. And they’ve spent many years of their lives being in an unstable situation and now suddenly they’ve come here for stability and haven’t got it here either,” she said.

Housing issues are one of the main reasons people come to MARS for help, said Webster: “People aren’t getting housing, are being evicted and need new housing, or they have to give up their housing because they can no longer afford it because the rent keeps getting put up.”

Housing affordability is a serious issue in New South Wales. An Anglicare rental affordability snapshot released earlier this year found that fewer than 2% of rental homes in Sydney and the Illawarra are affordable to low-income workers and people relying on government benefits.

For MARS worker Monica Biel, this is a harsh reality. Biel has been assisting a disabled Sudanese woman who lives with her 16-year-old daughter and her daughter’s nine-month-old baby. The family were evicted from their Merrylands home and left homeless after their landlord put up the rent.

They managed to escape spending the night in a train station after a fellow Sudanese community member found them a bed in a garage. “They got a tiny room, with one small bed,” said Biel.

Desperate for somewhere better to stay, the family went to the Department of Housing at various times for help but were told by department staff that there was no housing for them and they must leave. Despite pleas for help, Biel was told that the family was ineligible for emergency housing.

“The department say there’s no house, they are on a waiting list, but there is a shortage of houses,” said Biel. “This is why we are really shocked and we don’t know what to do. Because the criteria are there for someone who needs to get a house. The low income, medical condition that they have, and the child who has a baby is a child too, but they still say there is no housing stock.”

The family now pay $560 a fortnight for a two-bedroom apartment in Mount Druitt. While it’s a house, Biel says it’s still not good enough. “The house they live in, no one else wanted to live there, and it’s very expensive for what it is,” she said.

Cases such as this prompted Webster and her colleagues at MARS to push for funding from Anglicare for a research report on the community they serve. Long Way Home?’ The plight of African refugees obtaining decent housing in Western Sydney was published late last year. The report found that access to decent, affordable medium- to long-term housing was unattainable for many African refugees in Western Sydney — and that mental health was one of the barriers.

Falling through the cracks

Bob Rogan, a community support worker at the Salvation Army in Blacktown, sits in a dimly fluorescent lit garage-cum-office behind the charity’s antiquated onsite church. He’s been helping members of the community, many of whom are refugees, for just short of 20 years.

“Some of the things I’m seeing with people is they’ve been tortured or traumatised in their country of origin and they have a lot of difficulty hiding that long enough to be able to get into some sort of public housing,” said Rogan.

He used to work in partnership with a housing co-operative in the Blacktown area who head lease properties in the private rental market to people eligible for public housing, recommending potential tenants on a series of indicators that determine their prospective success in the system.

“You have to be careful who you choose,” he said. “And the ones who really fall through the cracks are people like drug addicts, people with mental illness, and people coming out of jail. No one wants to put them up.”

Rogan explained that priority housing is equally reluctant to welcome such cases, leaving abandoned hopefuls “couch-surfing or homeless”.

There are 9802 public housing dwellings in the Blacktown area (Housing NSW). Vacancy rates are low and tightening, rents are rising strongly and there is an increasing demand. These factors, combined with a lack of affordable housing opportunities, leave denied applicants dumbfounded.

“Unless you know someone in the Department of Housing, you’re wasting your time,” said Rogan.

He knows first-hand that mental illness affects a vast majority of people living in social housing in the Blacktown area, including asylum seekers who have received refugee status in Australia.

“This guy had been traumatised right from a very young age … when Saddam Hussein bulldozed his village. He moved to Iran and then in Iran he was a third_class citizen. He made enough money to escape and then ended up in Ashmore Island, and then he got sent to Port Headland in WA. While there he decided he was going to take his own life; chewed up a whole bunch of razor blades. But it didn’t kill him; they brought him back to life.”

Rogan explained the man experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder upon acceptance into the housing system.

“He went all right for a while and then something triggered it off. I didn’t see him for a while and [it turns out] he’d gone on a hunger strike … praying all the time, and he only drank water,” said Rogan.

On a waiting list to nowhere

Somali refugee Saada Abda Karin fled her home country after years of fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with disease and famine. She came to Sydney 16 years ago on a fake visa application and was subsequently placed in Villawood detention centre for more than two months.

“I was scared coming on my own, being a woman,” she said. “I didn’t expect I would end up in a jail.”

After being released from Villawood, she was placed in community housing in Auburn. She now lives in a small unit with her four children under the age of 12 and her ill mother. Her husband just passed away.

“Housing is a big issue,” she said. “I always wanted to live independently. I never wanted to go into community housing. I wanted to get my own accommodation.

“Every time you look for a new place, the rent has increased. The landlords just put the rent up.”

Saada was placed on a waiting list for two years before she was offered the unit she lives in now.

“[At] that time I had two children [and] I was expecting my third child. I hoped I would get a transfer.”

She has now been on the waiting list to transfer homes for eight years. She has written numerous letters to the Department of Housing questioning why she is still waiting. She either does not receive a reply, or they write back saying she is “not a priority”.

“Now it is eight years and I haven’t got a transfer.  I live in the same place and I just hope that one day they will give me a better house.”

While the Australian government does provide initial housing support to refugees under the new Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program, this support only lasts for six to 12 months.

“After that they’re kind of on their own and that’s when they move into our program,” says Shashika Peeligama, a case worker with the Auburn Housing Working Group.

Formed last year by migrant resource centre Auburn Diversity Services Inc, the group provide advocacy to local refugees looking for housing after they exit the HSS program.

“We see them after they’ve gone through this initial stage of their settlement process and then they look for longer term accommodation which is where the struggle lies,” said Peeligama.

With public housing basically not an option due to the long wait list, Peeligama recommends her clients focus on the private rental market. Along with affordability, however, this presents its own challenges.

“With that comes a lot of problems such as lack of communication, rent prices, real estate agents not really trusting our clients because they don’t have any rental history, or because they can’t communicate adequately with them.”

Founder of the Auburn Housing Working Group Niv Srivastava believes that services such as theirs are crucial for refugees, yet a lack of funding means they’re unable to help as many people as they’d like to. The group are currently in the process of applying for funding to support a full-time housing worker.

There’s no shortage of research on the mental health and housing challenges faced by refugees. Yet another report from the Refugee Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, The Settlement Experiences of Refugees and Migrants from the Horn of Africa, identified housing as one of the main obstacles to the successful settlement of refugees with mental health issues.

One Somali refugee quoted in the report said:

“I cannot mentally settle in this country. I was brought here and told you are here now deal with it. It does not matter how you survived out there … here it is new survival … Most of us have very many mental illnesses. Many of us are scared of losing our identity.”

Yet despite a plethora of reports and research, the health and housing bureaucracies in NSW seem incapable of acknowledging there’s a problem.

Tomorrow: Searching for solutions: a safe place for people with mental illness.

* Hama’s name has been changed.

Melanie Mahoney, Franziska Weigelt, Richard Barry, Jonas Lovschall-Wedel, Sophie Cousins, Annelien Maes, Anders Pedersen & Tess O’Brien are reporters with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

Melanie Mahoney, Richard Barry, Jonas Lovschall-Wedel, Sophie Cousins, & Tess O’Brien are enrolled in the Journalism program at UTS.

Franziska Weigelt, Annelien Maes, and Anders Pedersen 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.