HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.39 pm]: In June 2011, I made a statement in this place about the experience of one of my constituents, who was a public housing tenant and who had a serious mental illness and was facing eviction due to disruptive behaviour—behaviour that was the direct result of suffering a psychotic episode after a significant deterioration in his mental health. I raised my concerns at that time that his case was not isolated and that decisions to terminate tenancies were being made without taking into account people’s specific circumstances. I am very disappointed that nine years later I feel compelled to again raise the issue of people who live with serious mental illness, the symptoms of which are impacting on their ability to maintain their public housing tenancy, being made homeless due to the actions and policies of the Department of Communities. This is not only the result of action being taken to terminate a tenancy when the individual has received three strikes under the department’s disruptive behaviour policy, although this is certainly what is currently happening in some cases, but also due to circumstances in which people breach their obligations by failing to uphold property standards or are not considered to be engaging appropriately with the department; for example, not allowing members of the department to come in to conduct inspections or to undertake repairs. This is proving to be a particular issue for people who suffer from hoarding disorder.
As I have said before, and as it is frequently acknowledged, there are too many mentally ill people living on our streets. We absolutely need to do everything we can to ensure that we are not adding to that number. The research, as members know, has demonstrated that 48 per cent to 84 per cent of young people have a diagnosable mental illness, and between one quarter and one half of adults who experience homelessness are estimated to have severe and perhaps chronic mental illness. Therefore, the relationship between stable housing, good health and wellbeing, and quality of life is well established. Housing is acknowledged as one of the key social determinants required to ensure ongoing good mental health. People who live with particularly serious mental health issues already face multiple barriers to accessing housing that meets their needs and is appropriate and sustainable in terms of affordability, accessibility and appropriately safe and secure. The intersection between homelessness and mental health and alcohol and other drugs is well established. We know already that homelessness is a risk factor for mental health issues and that mental illness is also a risk factor for bringing about homelessness, so we are talking about a double-edged sword. These correlations point clearly to the fact that we absolutely need to support people who have mental illness to do everything they can to sustain their existing housing wherever possible.
In December 2018, the Auditor General released a report on the performance audit of the Department of Communities titled “Management of Disruptive Behaviour in Public Housing”, in which she rightly identified that poor mental health, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and intergenerational dysfunction can often contribute to disruptive tenant behaviours. The Auditor General also found that the same standard procedures were being followed by the department no matter what the diversity or complexity of the underlying cause of the disruptive behaviour. It found that strikes were even then being issued against tenants despite the existence of complex mental health illness, family violence or intergenerational dysfunction. This is not only unfair, it is also absolutely ineffective and not in the long-term interests of either the individual being made homeless or the community, which is then left to bear the social and economic costs of people with deteriorating mental health or other complex underlying drivers living on our streets.
The Auditor General identified a serious lack of early intervention to support vulnerable tenants—basically they were just given a brochure—and, furthermore, a lack of adequate data collection and reporting was hampering the department’s ability to identify opportunities and to effectively intervene to support vulnerable tenants to maintain their tenancy. Although I broadly welcome the intent provided by the machinery-of-government changes with Housing now in Disability Services, Child Protection and Family Support, Communities et cetera, particularly when this improves opportunities to provide holistic responses to vulnerable tenants, I remain concerned that the cultural change within Housing is either not happening or is happening far too slowly. Despite the Auditor General recommending over a year ago that the department needed to take a more holistic approach to tenancy management to reduce disruptive behaviour incidents, I have to say that I think there is very little sign of change on this front. Yesterday, I asked whether the department’s three-strikes termination policy applies when an individual’s disruptive behaviour is a result of underlying mental illness, and the Minister for Housing’s response gave me no confidence whatsoever that the issues raised by the Auditor General have been addressed. Indeed, part of the department’s response was a direct quote from its response over 12 months ago to the Auditor General recognising the department’s need to improve investigation and management of complaints taking into consideration the complex circumstances of individual cases.
We all want to ensure that we are living in safe and peaceful neighbourhoods. We all desire that. I am certainly not suggesting we should not respond to disruptive or unsafe behaviours. However, there are underlying issues for vulnerable people that need to be addressed through appropriate referrals and support and not via a punitive approach that results in individuals and families being made homeless.
This week has been a particularly sad one for me as I have been unsuccessful in assisting a man who has very serious mental health issues from being evicted from his home. That occurred yesterday. He is now homeless and he is a man with a very serious mental health issue who needs to be given support in his home. Well, when members go to their homes tonight, I want them to think about this man who should have been given the necessary supports to deal with his underlying issue and who is now on the streets. I, for one, do not want to continue to witness the enormous levels of distress caused to vulnerable individuals by an inflexible and inappropriate application of current policies. The situation needs to change. Unfortunately, under this government, we have very much seen a return to the bad old days of people with ongoing chronic mental health issues being unfairly and inappropriately evicted from public housing.