Living in fear in 21st century Australia

An unacceptably large number of public housing tenants do not feel safe in their own homes because of the conduct of their neighbours.  The problem is widespread across the state and of particular concern for older women, single mothers, people with disabilities and people from a non-English speaking background.

The problem certainly isn’t new, however in recent months the number of people coming to me with complaints about it has increased dramatically.  I recently got a report that the state government housing provider Housing NSW (HNSW) had given tenancies to two young men with substance abuse issues and a history of violent behaviour in a building where all the other occupants were frail elderly women.  These women can hear the sound of the young men’s aggressive behaviour from inside their apartments and are afraid to even walk the hallways of their own building at night. 

Another elderly lady with limited mobility has become cut off from her family for similar reasons – her son won’t bring her young grandchildren to visit as he fears for their safety in the high rise building that she lives in which is populated, once again, by people with aggressive behaviour issues.  I’ve also recently been told of a young pregnant woman being repeatedly assaulted by her neighbours and a woman with a physical disability housed in an estate where all the other occupants are men, many of whom have mental illnesses that cause them to act very aggressively at times.

These are just a few examples of the recent cases that have been bought to my attention of people living in fear in their own homes because of the poor housing allocations made by HNSW or its contractors.  Everyone deserves a home, including people with metal illnesses, substance abuse issues or who have done time in prison.  However it is essential that when these people are assigned to homes consideration is given to who their neighbours are and what needs they have.  At the moment HNSW does not seem to do this at all – their “anti-social behaviour strategy’ is hardly a strategy at all and they have no official policy to address the issue.

While HNSW has detailed procedures for moving tenants who are in danger in their current homes they have no policies to prevent these situations from arising in the first place.  Prevention is far better than cure.  For elderly people or people with poor English language skills the process of applying for a transfer can be very daunting, many people worry that they will be evicted if they make a fuss and whoever you are, the process takes a long time.  HNSW needs to house people appropriately in the first place instead of waiting for a problem to crop up then going about the slow, complicated process of moving people.

I’ll be the first to admit that this issue isn’t a simple one.  One of the principles underlying the creation of public housing communities is social mix.  You don’t want to concentrate too many disadvantaged people in one spot lest you give rise to many more social problems.  Ultimately the solution will likely involve housing those with the potential to cause problems alongside those who are the least vulnerable in areas where support services and security are on hand.

It will also involve the creation of more seniors communities and other areas where groups of people more comfortable around others of their own demographic can be housed together and mutually support each other.

HNSW needs to seriously look at these issues and come up with a comprehensive set of policies for allocating people to properties in a way that creates as positive an environment as possible for all those involved.

In the 21st century it shouldn’t be acceptable for people to be living in fear like so many are.  We all deplore domestic violence for this reason but seem to ignore the people who, in their own homes, are afraid of violence from elsewhere.

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3 responses to “Living in fear in 21st century Australia

  1. Great article and one thats long overdue,Its becoming like ppl who complain are treated like whistle blowers and whingers,staff are rude to you and the offenders are asked do they have any complaints,which frankly is a joke,I want to be moved because my health cannot take any more,Im now on drugs to stay calm and my doctor has diagnosed me with traumatic stress syndrome,something akin to women living with domestic violence would suffer.
    there is a web site http://www.houseswop.and I feel the best way to deal with this is a NSW residents action group.or some sort of enquiry,i read one womans account and her dog was taken and dumped 3 klm;s away.we need help but we also need collective action to empower ppl.

  2. As you say, Irene, the problem is not simple, and if only it was as simple as allocations. The issue remains rooted in the failure of successive governments to fully implement the Richmond report way back in 1985. Large scale institutions were closed, but the necessary community supports were never implemented for those deinstitutionalised. When the welfare-bashing Howard govt choked off funding for social housing, compounded by social changes including a rise in mental illness attributable to the stress levels of living in a brutal market economy, social housing became “housing of last resort”, and is now so tightly targetted, that there are no people entering the system who are “least vulnerable”. You can’t move everyone with a mental illness into one area because effecitvely it becomes a new large scale institution, but without infrastructure. It all comes back to mental health funding both federally and at the state level. In public housing, the tightened targetting began in 2005. It was meant to be complemented by mental health services, but as this recent shows, nothing much has happened since. Meanwhile the suffering continues.

  3. That last sentence was meant to read ” as this recent press release* from NCOSS* shows, nothing much has happened since”

    It is a year since the NSW ombudsman made recommendations to fix the poor performance of the existing mental health supports for people in housing, and neither political party has responded.

    * http://www.ncoss.org.au/content/view/4253/98/ no

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