St Pat’s and WA Association for Mental Health bosses give verdicts on Freo homeless survey

Helping homeless people has become common place for a local pastor. Picture: file pic
Helping homeless people has become common place for a local pastor. Picture: file pic

Full transcript of interviews with St Patrick’s Community Support Centre housing and support services director Victor Crevatin and WA Association for Mental Health chief executive Rod Astbury.

Victor Crevatin

More than 100 homeless people were found on the night. How “representative” do you think that number is? Do you consider it pretty accurate or are there more on the streets that couldnt be found?

Our workers have said that because it was the middle of winter, in particularly cold weather, this number is definitely lower than the usual number of people living on Freo’s streets. In addition to the seasonal factor, our workers have also spoken with clients that we know are living on the streets but who prefer to remain anonymous. Many of these individuals deliberately avoided being part of the survey. Overall, that number can safely be construed as “the tip of the iceberg”.

What are your thoughts on the number of children found?

We spoke to five families; four were living in crisis accommodation or boarding houses, while one was sleeping on the street. The families had 15 children altogether but only one family had their children living with them when we surveyed them (the rest of the children were in foster care).

All families were single parent families, apart from one. All of the parents said that if they could find housing one of their primary goals was to get their children returned to them.

It was interesting to note that of the homeless individuals over 25 that we surveyed, nearly a third (32 per cent) said they had a history of institutional or foster care as a child. St. Pat’s leads a new integrated service – the Fremantle Family Support Network – which assists families to get the support they need to reduce the incidence of children being taken into care.

Meeting these families and individuals certainly underscored the importance of that goal for us.

What are your thoughts on the average time families have been on the streets? (more than three years). Do you think more can be done to reduce that average time? If so, what?

St. Pat’s finds this unacceptable. It is directly attributable to the severe lack of affordable accommodation for homeless families. St. Pat’s runs a crisis accommodation program for families – the Fremantle Family Crisis Accommodation Referral Service – that is consistently full.

WA desperately needs more accommodation options for families in crisis and simply for families who are struggling financially. This would require more innovative solutions to increase the supply of both crisis and affordable accommodation for families, working hand in hand with an integrated support approach such as the Family Support Network.

What are your thoughts on the average time individuals have been on the streets? (more than five years). Do you think more can be done to reduce that average time? If so, what?

Again, we find this very upsetting but not surprising. The lack of affordable accommodation is key contributor, however homelessness is a complex problem and having appropriate support services in place is also vital to ensuring long term sustainable solutions. The fastest growing demographic of homeless individuals is among senior women; we are likely to start seeing more older women on the streets as a reflection of this demographic shift.

What do you think about the stat that all youth who were homeless had reported violence against them? What can be done to protect these people more?

This really concerns us. There is an unfortunate misconception amongst some of the public that homeless people contribute to violence on the streets; when in actual fact, homeless people are far more likely to be victims of this violence. St. Pat’s knows of two incidents where two former clients were killed on the streets in the last three years; this is a very serious issue for our clients.

The Fremantle police were invaluable partners in conducting this survey and it was terrific to see them so interested to see the results. Working collaboratively with community and broader policing to ensure an effective response to homelessness is very important. St. Pat’s offers a specialist youth program called Youth Place but it really does take a whole-of-community response to effectively tackle these issues. There are many factors at play here – mental health, substance mis-use, family violence.

To protect youth, we need to ensure that they have the support and care they need to prevent them from ending up on the streets in the first place. If they do end up there, St. Pat’s Street to Home program is one of the main points of entry for youth in need of help. Our Street to Home workers work very hard to establish a rapport with these young people, many of whom have trouble trusting anyone in authority.

What are your thoughts on the drug and alcohol use among those surveyed?

While upsetting, this is not a surprise to us. We are accustomed to seeing a lot of substance misuse, particularly amongst the rough sleeping population. These issues often tie in with mental health issues as people misuse substances in order to self-medicate.

What are your thoughts on how many had mental health issues?

A significant proportion of our clients suffer from serious mental health issues so it’s not surprising to see this reflected in the survey. There was also a large proportion of those surveyed were classified as tri-morbid, meaning they were suffering physical illness, mental illness and substance misuse. One of St. Pat’s most successful programs is the Mental Health Housing Support Service.

Our workers work with clients who have serious mental health issues – we find accommodation for them, we ensure they know how to maintain a tenancy; we co-ordinate a “wraparound” service that ensures the client has regular contact with allied health professionals and relevant government agencies. However, despite a justified focus of late by government on Mental Health, many gaps remain in services particularly effecting this very vulnerable group of Australians, the homeless.

How do you think Registry Week went?

We were really pleased with the wonderful help we received from our teams of volunteers; all of whom had to get up in the cold at 3am! We had volunteers from all over the Freo community; the Housing Authority, the Department of Child Protection and Family Support, Notre Dame students, staff from St. Pat’s RUAH and other agencies, Fremantle police, even a former St. Pat’s client helped out.

The information we collected is very valuable and we were pleased that the vast majority of people we approached agreed to take part in the survey. Obviously, we were concerned by what we found but it is good to have the hard data quantifying the issues that are out there, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence.

How will these statistics now help St Patrick’s?

In conjunction with RUAH Community Services, we will interpret this data and use it to better target our services. It will also be very useful when it comes to making our case before funding bodies… it’s one thing to know there’s a problem, it’s quite another to have the evidence to prove it.

Is St Pat’s considering running the survey again next year?

We are definitely looking at running the survey again but we’re not sure just yet whether it will be 2017 or 2018. This will be co-ordinated with Ruah and other services that run “Registry Week” in other parts of Perth.

Do you think there will ever come a time when there are so few people on the streets that something like this wont be necessary?

We would love it, if this were ever the case! It’s hard to imagine this happening anytime soon but we know that the broader community is genuinely concerned; they don’t want to live in a society that does not protect its most vulnerable members. It’s up to all of us to demand that this situation changes and to maintain the pressure until it does. To care for our most vulnerable is a whole-of-society responsibility. We’re hopeful; we think things are changing…it’s just that they are changing awfully slowly.

Rod Astbury

The recent report from Registry Week in Fremantle showed of 68 individuals interviewed, 54 reported having mental health issues. What do you think about this statistic? Is it high or about on par?

The Fremantle statistics are high, but sadly, not surprising. The figures reflect the stark reality of increasing homelessness in Western Australia among people experiencing mental health issues. The Fremantle figures are similar to the findings of the Ruah 2016 Registry Week Survey undertaken in Perth which found that 77.9 per cent of respondents had a least one indicator of a mental health issue and 82 per cent had one indicator of a substance use issue. These findings are consistent across surveys of people experiencing homelessness.

Why do you think there is such a strong correlation between mental health issues and homelessness?

Inadequate funding for community support services in WA for people experiencing mental health issues result in people being discharged from hospital to unsupported and unstable housing environments. This places them at greater risk of homelessness, as well as other issues like drug and alcohol problems, recurrence or worsening of their mental health issue, coming into contact with the justice system and suicide. There is also is a lack of affordable, suitable and stable housing for people experiencing mental health issues.

What more can be done?

State, federal and local governments need to increase their investment in mental health illness prevention, early intervention and community-based programs and services to reduce the risk factors for people experiencing mental health issues becoming homeless. Adequate, long-term community-based support services for people experiencing mental health issues would reduce the risk factors for homelessness and lead to savings in downstream expenditures. Such supports include:

– Increasing supported employment;

– Increasing affordable housing options;

– Increasing specialist mental health supported accommodation to ensure people experiencing mental health issues are not discharged from hospital or justice systems into homelessness;

– Increasing the long-term support for community-based programs and services that work with the homeless.