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WA eviction suicides spark call for public housing reform

Giovanni Torre -

Veteran housing advocates in Western Australia have called for an end to the use of "no reason" fixed term tenancy evictions from public housing in WA after revelations of suicide deaths of young Aboriginal people due to "unjust and discriminatory" public housing eviction policies that disproportionately impact First Nations families in the state.

On Friday, Guardian Australia reported on the cases of multiple Indigenous families who have been evicted from public housing in WA, despite warnings from their advocates they would be left homeless and highly vulnerable, and a number of associated suicides.

The paper's national investigation into deaths due to homelessness also revealed that people experiencing homelessness die on average three decades earlier than those who do not, sparking calls for governments to record data on homeless deaths and to report every death on the street to coronial investigation, as is mandatory with deaths in custody.

The advocates from Stop Evicting Families noted on Friday that 58 per cent of the fixed term public housing tenancies in WA are issued to Aboriginal families.

Currently in the Federal Court an injunction is in place preventing the eviction of one Aboriginal family by the WA government while their racial discrimination complaint is determined by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Stop Evicting Families spokesperson, longtime housing campaigner Dr Betsy Buchanan OAM, said she has seen the "devastating trauma" suffered by families affected by suicides following public housing evictions.

"Just yesterday, I was informed about another suspected suicide that was directly attributed to a recent eviction to homelessness," she said on Friday.

"I've worked with dozens of First Nations families in Perth who've lost children to homelessness. It is a stain on the WA government that one of the wealthiest states in the world, with bumper Budget surpluses extracted every year from Aboriginal land, has not stopped this cavalcade of trauma, abuse and deaths on our streets."

Stop Evicting Families cited data from the WA Department of Communities showing that Aboriginal families make up the majority of all evictions from public housing in WA over the past seven years, with more than 3000 children being evicted from public housing in that time.

The Stop Evicting Families campaign urged the WA government to embrace three significant reforms: adopt a target of zero children evicted to homelessness from public housing and report publicly on this; end the use of fixed term tenancies and without grounds terminations in public housing; and co-design and commission a support service to support Aboriginal public housing tenants to sustain their tenancies.

"This support service should be designed to support families experiencing intergenerational trauma and should be wrap-around, holistic and provide long term support," the group said in a statement.

Dr Buchanan said the state government had repeatedly dismissed "pioneering independent" research from Professor Lisa Wood into homeless deaths in Perth because "they find it inconvenient to be confronted with the scale of their failure to fix WA's homelessness crisis".

"If they don't like Lisa's numbers they should start keeping their own, and make every homeless death a reportable death subject to coronial inquest like deaths in custody. The state has just as much responsibility for people dying on its streets as in its jails," she said.

National Indigenous Times has previously reported on the high number of homeless people dying in Western Australia, and the severe threat homelessness poses to health and wellbeing.

Stop Evicting Families campaigner Jesse Noakes said that the first time he worked on a case, several years ago, with a client at the end of a fixed term public housing tenancy, the WA government "provided no evidence or witnesses but summarily evicted him onto the street" and the elderly Aboriginal man was dead within a year.

"The consequences of ongoing "no reason" public housing evictions are acute, chronic and too often fatal - for children, it's a pipeline out of education and into juvenile detention, child removal, health and mental health problems, incarceration and even death," he said.

"This government needs to commit to build much more public housing, and they need to stop evicting families. They have one Budget left before the next election - they would want to use it wisely."

A spokesperson for the WA government told National Indigenous Times the government's "immediate focus is on providing housing and accommodation for rough sleepers".

"This is why, as a government, our focus has been on delivering a Housing First Approach and providing intensive wrap-around supports to support rough sleepers," he said.

"Our Government is investing an unprecedented $2.6 billion in housing and homelessness measures over four years. It's acknowledged several of our significant investments in homelessness – including Boorloo Bidee Mia, which is a low barrier facility which takes in some of the complex and vulnerable individuals of the state – have made a significant difference in the health outcomes and lives of individuals experiencing homelessness.

"What we are seeing over the short-time of BBM's operation is some of the most complex and vulnerable individuals – presenting less often in Emergency Departments and with less complex health concerns."

The government spokesperson said that noted across the sector and even in the Homelessness Inquiry Report, that data on people experiencing homelessness and their health information is "difficult to ascertain", given multiple data sources and the nature of the cohort.

"Homelessness is not a cause of death in its own right; however, it's acknowledged that people sleeping rough may be at greater risk due a range of factors which can be exacerbated by comorbidities that these individuals may have," he said.

"The state government recognises the value of regular and up to date data to track rough sleeping in our community, which is why we have invested significantly in the By Name List and the Zero Project. In fact – through our boosted outreach services – we've been actively working to get more people onto the By Name List to ensure vulnerable individuals, who may be rough sleeping, have contact with and access to relevant support services."

The WA government has previously said the Department of Communities' approach is proactive and focussed on early intervention and case management services to support tenants, an approach it credits for the drop in public housing evictions from 315 in 2015-16 to 47 in 2022-23.

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