People with disability living in poor conditions while spending most of pension on housing

Posted 1 year ago by Anna Christian
The Disability Royal Commission heard from people with disability who experienced homelessness and those who experienced abuse in Supported Residential Services. [Source: Disability Royal Commission]
The Disability Royal Commission heard from people with disability who experienced homelessness and those who experienced abuse in Supported Residential Services. [Source: Disability Royal Commission]

People with disability have told the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability that despite spending almost all of their income on housing they have experienced inaccessible and unlivable conditions.

This week’s public hearing focused on ‘Homelessness, including experience in boarding houses, hostels and other arrangements’, and witnesses told the Commission of their stress around being at risk of homelessness, as well as in some cases experiencing abuse from service providers.

More than 6,000 National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness currently.

One of the causes for this is the astronomical rental prices which are unaffordable to more than 99 percent of Disability Support Pension recipients.

Witness Nik Moorhouse, who is legally blind, told the Commission, “I think there is a poverty trap around being on Centrelink and particularly being in a house provided by the Department of Housing, and a concern for me is that I won’t be able to get myself out of it.

“[Our rental house] didn’t meet the requirements for my disability and particularly the bathroom was quite dangerous for me. And there were a couple of other areas at the house that I struggled with that I would walk into pretty often.”

Social and affordable housing is also not being developed quickly enough to meet the demand for safe and secure housing for people with disability.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Homelessness New South Wales, Trina Jones, explains, “The current investment in social housing in NSW is atrophying and in decline, and with the current investment of approximately 700 houses a year, it will actually take 70 years to meet the current waiting list.”

Supported Residential Services under spotlight

The last two days of the Royal Commission this week focused on the situations of people with disability living in Supported Residential Services (SRS).

These are privately run accommodation settings often seen as a “last resort” because they are similar to institutions, which were supposed to be completely removed from the housing system decades ago.

Witnesses who had lived in SRS told the Commission of their experiences, including poor food, a lack of heating – which caused one witness to have to sleep in her jacket because she was so cold, a lack of care provided, filthy living conditions and tiny bedrooms.

Yesterday, the Commission also heard from staff of Victorian not-for-profit service provider Wintringham, which has recently taken onboard residents from SRS facilities that were closed by the State Government over the last few years due to their appalling conditions.

Wintringham Chief Executive Bryan Lipmann told the Commission that when his organisation took over facilities, including Gracemanor in Melton South, Victoria, the facility had been spending as little as $2 per day per resident on food.

Mr Lipmann says his organisation spends $24 on food per resident, per day, and that the previous $2 a day on food per resident under the former operator was immensely inadequate.

The organisation also provided photos of the former rooms of some of the residents were living in, which Wintringham had taken over supporting. The photos showcased small bedroom spaces, stained mattresses, shared spaces with no privacy, and a lack of clean air or natural light.

Wintringham also found in one facility a padlock that was placed on the door at night so residents couldn’t leave and piles of personal mail gathered – some opened – which had not been passed on to residents.

There are an estimated 117 SRS in Victoria, housing 4,000 people, and ranging from five residents to 80. The facilities often charge between 85 to 95 percent of a resident’s pension.

Victorian Public Advocate Colleen Pearce spoke of issues in finding out which facilities were not meeting quality standards and raised a concern over the growing number of accommodation sites which appeared to be unregistered SRS.

Dr Pearce says the safeguarding and regulatory system “isn’t nimble” like the dodgy service provider market is and because regulatory bodies move slowly they can sometimes lose track of people and are not able to step in when help is needed.

She adds that although placing people into a public guardianship limits people’s rights, there is sometimes no alternative to get them out of these living situations.

Representatives call for housing choice to be seen as human right

In the lead up to the hearing, national disability representative organisations – including People with Disability Australia (PWDA), Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA) and Inclusion Australia – released a joint statement around their concerns and recommendations for housing for people with disability.

The organisations want the Commission to acknowledge that:

  • Safe and secure housing is critical to exercising human rights and accessing supports and services
  • People with disability have a right to choose where, and with whom, they live
  • Structural barriers to safe, secure and accessible housing must be addressed to create genuine inclusion for people with disability

PWDA President, Samantha Connor, says, “People with disability need real choice and control and shouldn’t be expected to live with other people unless they choose to, the same as anyone else.

“It’s a human right.

“To make this happen we need to see urgent action to significantly increase accessible and affordable housing.

“We also need to separate NDIS housing and living supports so people can change service providers without losing their home.”

Inclusion Australia CEO, Catherine McAlpine, adds she is concerned that there seems to be a “slow drift back to institutional housing models”, which have a higher risk of abuse for people with disability.

“Although many older centres have closed, in some cases they are being replaced with new buildings and apartments on the same sites, with the same staff, still segregated from the community.

“The [Commission] must examine the institutionalisation people with intellectual disability are still experiencing across all housing models, especially housing that is provided by organisations with a history of large-scale institutionalised practices.”

A report will be written by the Commission in the coming months on the findings of the hearing, while the Final Report and recommendations of the four-year long Royal Commission will be made by September 2023.