Skating on Thin Ice: Mental Illness & Homelessness
8 October 2013 at 9:26 am
More work needs to be done to support people living with mental illness to sustain social housing tenancies, especially those relying on Centrelink payments, as the only alternative is life on the streets, according to new research.
The research paper, Skating on Thin Ice, released by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) during Mental Health Month explores the difficulties people with mental illness face accessing and maintaining social housing.
“For some people living with mental illness, lack of money, stigma and discrimination from private landlords and real estate agents prove to be insurmountable obstacles to renting privately. This means that access to social housing is the only option for safe, secure accommodation,” Senior Policy Officer at PIAC Lou Schetzer said.
“The prevalence of mental illness among homeless people in Sydney is about four times that of Australia in general. If we are serious about tackling homelessness, we need to address this issue.”
The paper includes case studies from PIAC’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Service. It includes the story a 57 year old woman with mental illness, who was a victim of child abuse. She received a notice of termination from Housing NSW in relation to her home of 18 years because of an error in Centrelink payments to Housing NSW. Then despite the negotiation of a payment plan, Housing commenced eviction proceedings.
“Some of the case studies show a surprising lack of understanding of the challenges faced by people living with mental illness on the part of Housing NSW,” Schetzer said.
PIAC and its homelessness consumer advisory committee, StreetCare, have commenced discussions with senior officials in Housing NSW to discuss possible strategies to improve service to this vulnerable group.
Some key areas for improvement, which would address some of the problems identified in this discussion paper, include:
- Ensuring that all staff in Customer Service Operations in Housing NSW receive training focused on how to effectively engage with homeless people who live with mental illness. This training should be developed in consultation with people who have experienced homelessness.
- That Housing NSW ensure that there is consideration of a person’s background and experience of mental illness before placing them in public housing, so that they are not placed in areas or accommodation in which they may feel at risk, unsafe, or where the accommodation is otherwise inappropriate given their particular circumstances.
- That Housing NSW ensures that there is easier access to transfer for people living in public housing if they have a history of mental illness and are fearful for their personal safety or have concerns about becoming/returning to homelessness because of the area in which they are housed.
- That where a social housing tenant has fallen into arrears with their rent payments, or is facing other tenancy related debt, that Housing NSW adopt an ‘eviction as a last resort’ policy. In such circumstances, Housing NSW should make multiple efforts to contact the tenant via mail, telephone and personal visits, in order to ascertain if the tenant is facing circumstances of financial hardship or crisis, with a view to referring the tenant to appropriate support services. Only after multiple attempts to contact the tenant have been unsuccessful should Housing NSW consider issuing a written warning that it is considering a Notice of Termination.
- That Housing NSW develops procedures to enable identification of social housing tenants in financial crisis or hardship, by virtue of a history of falling into rental arrears, and provide warm referrals for such tenants to appropriate welfare support and financial counselling organisations.
The report can be found here.