The first time Jenny, a public housing tenant in Sydney’s Inner West, met her new neighbour, Wayne (not their real names), Wayne attacked her with a broomstick.
She’d heard him out the back, ranting about “f*ckin’ wogs”. Concerned for her sons who were outside, she went out to investigate. When she told Wayne to keep it down, “he went straight for my heart with the broomstick”. She ran for her life, while her son tried to hold him off with a cricket bat.
It wasn’t about race. Jenny and her family look Anglo, like Wayne. But her neighbour is a delusionary, mentally ill young man, fighting fit and raging. Thus thwarted, Wayne started smashing all the windows of his townhouse. The police came and took him into custody, but by midnight, he was back outside Jenny’s house, hurling obscenities, threatening to kill her and carve her into little pieces.
Since that night several months ago, Jenny says she has been living a nightmare. Her younger son is so afraid that he “keeps telling me to whisper when we’re in the living room in case Wayne hears”. Neighbours say the boy has lost five kilograms since the incident. And Jenny is afraid that her older son will take the law into his own hands and get hurt.
The Department of Housing has called in the community mental health team, and Wayne has been in and out of hospital since, but neighbours say that every time he comes back, “he goes straight on the rampage again”, which has included roaming up and down the street threatening passers-by with a stick.
Jenny says, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I’m that terrified of what he’s going to do next.”
She fears for her own sanity and says, “The police are useless and the Department [of Housing NSW]does nothing.” She is scheduled for a court hearing for an AVO, but the police have still not issued her with the documents. The police officer assigned to her case only works two days per week, and never returns calls. Jenny says, “I understand that these mentally ill men have to live somewhere, but why are they bringing them in here amongst single mothers with children? But the Department keeps bringing ‘em in, and bringing ‘em in…”
The influx of people with “complex needs”, a rubric for drug addiction, mental illness and behavioural disorders, into their communities is the dominant topic among public housing tenants these days. The Central Sydney Regional Tenant Resource Service reports that this year, inquiries involving mental health and anti-social behaviour topped the list of tenant concerns, replacing maintenance, the perennial bugbear for tenants in our often rundown estates.
Everyone has a story, and nowhere more poignant than old people terrified by violent neighbours. Joan, an aged pensioner in a nearby estate lives in fear of her neighbour — a massive, obese man who bangs on her door and accuses her of sending radio waves through the walls to kill him. Most of the older tenants will tell you that a dozen years ago they were very happy in their housing communities. But then it all began to deteriorate.
So what has changed?
Over its 12 years in office, the Howard government stripped $3 billion from the states’ public housing programs. NSW, the largest public housing provider in the southern hemisphere, with a portfolio of 140,000 dwellings found itself going out backwards, with maintenance costs in the 2006-07 financial year alone totalling around $1 million each day. Something had to give and the NSW Government’s response was triage.
Their new policy “Reshaping Public Housing”, introduced in 2005 by then Housing Minister, Joe Tripodi, saw a narrowing of the eligibility criteria to “those most in need”. This was the final stage of what had been a gradual transition from the original purpose of public housing — to provide low-cost housing for low income families — to what is now known as “welfare housing”. Low income families no longer get a look in unless they are homeless. Nowadays you need to be either aged, disabled, mentally ill or addicted to get a foot in the door.
A milestone in the transition from public to welfare housing came in 1985 with the release of the Richmond Report, which recommended that people with mental illness be moved out of large-scale institutions to be cared for in the community. But the necessary community infrastructure never materialised. The state’s coffers benefited from the savings on beds, but the mentally ill were out on the streets with only the promise of care, then left to fend for themselves, often cycling in ever-decreasing circles through jails and emergency wards.
The move to deinstitutionalisation owed much to the idealism of the 1960s, fuelled by the anti-psychiatry ideas of RD Laing, and the influential film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which exposed the horrors of institutional abuse. These days, expert opinion is against a return to large-scale psychiatric hospitals. Vivienne Miller, co-author of the National Standards for Mental Health Services (1996), and a long time advocate of community care, says: “If you had a mental illness, where would you rather be living — in the community, or in a hospital?” She adds: “Where you have a large-scale institution, the potential for abuse is magnified.”
Despite the acuteness of the problem, the director general of Housing NSW, Mike Allen, says that the Department does not keep statistics on the number of people who gain public housing on the basis of mental illness. Responding to a question by Greens Senator Sylvia Hale, at October’s Housing Budget Estimates committee meeting, Allen said that numbers are not kept since there is no legal obligation on prospective tenants to reveal their mental health status.
When grilled by Senator Hale on whether he was aware of incidents such as the one described above, Housing Minister David Borger replied that Housing NSW had recruited a number of specialist support staff deployed across the state, and was successfully trialling a number of new shared access schemes, which linked housing to support services. And he added that NSW had a zero tolerance policy towards violent behaviour.
Not according to Linda, one of Jenny’s neighbours. “If I was going to go rampaging around like Wayne, I’d be out on my ear tomorrow. But with the ‘mentals’ … they’re never going to evict them”.
None of the tenants interviewed for this article had ever come across any specialist support workers, though Housing NSW is currently trialling the latest of the shared access schemes referred to by the Minister, the much-awaited Housing and Human Services Accord.
The Accord, a vital component of the Reshaping Public Housing package, is intended to provide a framework for human service agencies to work in partnership with Housing NSW to support people with complex needs. However, the trial is not yet at the evaluation stage, let alone ready to be rolled out across the state.
Meanwhile, a source within Housing NSW, who asked not to be identified, said that in a problem situation the procedure was to call in local mental health support services to calm things down. If the problem occurred a couple of times, the department could apply to the Consumer Trader and Tenancy Tribunal, but there was little point. An eviction of the person at the centre of the disturbance was unlikely, because the tribunal would tend to uphold the rights of the mentally ill to a home in the community.
Like all the public housing tenants interviewed for this article, Linda accepts the justice and necessity of accepting people with psychiatric disorders into their communities. “We can’t have them sent to Leperland,” she says. “They have a right to be a part of the community.”
But while Linda affirms the rights of the mentally ill, her ambivalence is apparent. For as older residents in the complex die they are replaced by troubled younger men.
Now six of the 15 dwellings in her complex, or 40 per cent, house people who receive support for having a mental illness or intellectual disability. There are also a few more who, in Linda’s opinion, have not been diagnosed.
Linda says that the worst thing is always being on alert. “You never know who is going to go off next.” She doesn’t let her children play in the adventure playground provided for the complex. “How can you explain to an eight year old that this one is mentally ill, and that one is mentally ill?” She is clearly not happy with the idea that her children are “growing up with the idea that this is the way the world is”.
So what is to be done? Sylvia Hale has the diagnosis and the cure, but it won’t come cheaply. She says, “In every sphere, services are run down. People are released prematurely from hospital because there are not sufficient outpatient resources”. It all comes down to money, and that means raising taxes, something neither the Federal Government nor NSW Labor are prepared to countenance.
Meanwhile the consensus among public housing tenants is grim. Linda speaks for all when she predicts, “Nothing is going to be done around here until someone gets killed”.
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