More Australians who have been discharged from psychiatric hospitals are being dumped in backpacker hostels when they have nowhere else to go, advocates say.
After spending three months in a psychiatric hospital in Footscray, Tess Johnson*, then 17, was discharged and booked into a hostel.
“I had been so isolated, I was incredibly unwell. But they put me in a cab and told the cab where to drop me off, while I still didn’t even know how to take my medication by myself,” she told The New Daily.
With only $900 of emergency money from Centrelink in her bank account, she was put in a four-bedroom dorm with overseas travellers.
“It was a terrifying experience. I couldn’t afford a single room,” she said.
“I thought they would have spoken to the backpackers, but they had no idea who I was. It was really, really scary and re-traumatising.”
Across the nation, Australians suffering from acute mental health issues are increasingly being discharged from hospitals and checked into backpackers when they have nowhere else to go.
In Victoria alone, 500 people sought out homelessness services after leaving psychiatric hospitals in 2016-17, according to the Council to Homeless Persons.
The number has increased by 45 per cent since 2013-14.
In Sydney, one in five homeless persons have found themselves on the street after leaving psychiatric facilities, a study by Macquarie University’s Olav Nielssen showed.
To fix this phenomenon we need to urgently look at the link between the two issues, said Launch Housing general manager Andrew Hollows.
“When you’re thinking about the mental health system you need to take in regard the housing response,“ Dr Hollows said.
“Housing is critical when someone is looking to recover from mental health issues.”
On Tuesday the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system released its interim report, calling for a special tax to be introduced to fix the “catastrophic” system.
The report called for nine urgent recommendations, including a Victorian collaborative centre for mental health and wellbeing, more acute hospital beds, and services designed and delivered by people with lived experience.
But it was met with mixed reaction from advocacy groups, who say the report neglected the link between mental health and homelessness.
“Our initial response is that we’re incredibly disappointed that there’s not a stronger link between stable housing and mental health,” Dr Hollows said.
A recent report from AHURI found that the more a person experienced housing instability, the poorer a person’s mental health is.
Having nowhere to go set back Tess’s recovery years, she said.
After a few nights in the hostel, she went to the only place she could – the family home of a boy she had met while in hospital.
“I was unwell, he was unwell too. It was a heavily drug-influenced family. I ended up in an abusive relationship with him for seven years. I ended up stuck,” she said.
Eventually, she got out.
Now 29, she’s got her own place in Footscray and a stable job. Now she’s a peer support worker for a homeless service.
“It wouldn’t have happened had I been discharged into stable accommodation,” she said.
“I wasn’t expecting long-term accommodation. I just wanted something stable where there were support workers.
“This turnaround would have happened so much earlier had I had stable housing.”
This link between mental health issues and homelessness creates a revolving door that fills hospitals beds and even jails, Dr Hollows said.
“We need cash to run the support services. It’s not cheap, but it’s cheaper than sending people to jails or hospitals,” Dr Hollows said.
“It needs capital and land. We need a partnership between agencies and governments.”
Advocates are calling for more permanent supportive housing and step-down programs that support a timely transition to housing.
“There’s an assumption that people have somewhere to go and in many cases that’s not the case.
“We need more prevention programs to keep people in their rentals. We need more permanent housing for people who have ongoing issues, and clearly we need more time to transition.”
*named changed to protect privacy.