In WA, where I work as a tenant advocate for Aboriginal people, the state Housing Authority has long seen itself as “landlord of last resort”. Instead of prioritising the social, community and economic benefits of keeping people in public housing, there is often a default push to evict families — leading to homelessness — for relatively minor transgressions.
As I revealed in Crikey in June, the state Labor government continues to evict public housing tenants in record numbers. Its eviction figures dwarf those for Victoria, a state with twice the population. The figures have eclipsed those of the previous Liberal government.
This may be why the Housing Authority is reluctant to release other figures relating to children and Aboriginal people made homeless. Although Housing gathers information about Aboriginal status from every applicant, and allocates housing based on the number of children listed on the application, it insists it does not record this information. Representatives from Housing have declined to answer questions raised in state parliament about these figures, citing the workload involved. An Auditor-General’s report in December 2018 criticised Housing’s recording and disclosure of information.
Advocates have informally been advised by senior Housing bureaucrats that 50-60% of evictions involve Aboriginal families. As for children, WA-based social researcher Gerry Georgatos estimates at least 1000 a year are made homeless by the state government. If this is an over-estimate, the government might want to say so, because it’s utterly damning.
Part of the problem is the abject failure of the much-touted 2017 amalgamation of the Housing Authority into the expanded Department of Communities, which also incorporates Child Protection and Family Support (CPFS). The idea was that there would be much greater collaboration and coordination between separate portfolios within the new department. There was talk of open-plan offices where Housing and Child Protection officers could work side by side, freed from their silos.
Public housing tenants are vulnerable by definition — only the poor are eligible, and those with compounding factors like abuse, domestic violence, illness and family trauma, get housed sooner. Most families who come through our office have been involved with Child Protection at some stage.
If they lose their public housing, that becomes even more likely. Homeless kids do not go to school; they get sick; they get in trouble; and they are intensely vulnerable to predators. When Housing evicts a family rather than working to support a tenancy, they often open up a new file next door at Child Protection.
I was in a meeting in the past month with representatives from both Child Protection and Housing. At one point the Housing officer ducked out of the room for a moment, and the CPFS officer turned to me and said: “This is bizarre. She is looking at me like I’m an alien. I thought we were supposed to be in the same department.”
Another recent time, I was asked to get in touch with Child Protection to find a contact number for a critically vulnerable family that Housing was desperately trying to track down. I’m eager to assist, but when liaison between different parts of the same department requires the involvement of someone like me, something isn’t working.
The problem does not reside with the individual officers, managers or ministers. I have productive and friendly relationships with many of them, and I respect their effort and often genuine desire to help. The problem is, as always, the system. Western Australia used to be an openly white supremacist state — now the ideology is merely buried in the legal system and public policy.
Ultimately, though, the limiting factor to ending homelessness and making impossible lives a little easier is public policy and will. There is not enough public housing stock in WA to house the 14,000 applicants on the wait list. There’s at least a decade’s wait for a house. That is intolerable. Without sufficient funding to acquire or build new stock, decent homes that people can invest their energy into maintaining, nothing will change.
Jesse Noakes is a freelance writer and tenant advocate from Fremantle.