Socio-legal Perspectives

Paper 3: Chicken or the egg? Mental illness or squalor?

Mental Health Council of Australia, ACT

Mental illness, homelessness and squalor are often intertwined and each can compound the other.

Having a safe, appropriate, and high quality home is essential to people with a mental illness. Fifteen years ago, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner Brian Burdekin wrote that one of the biggest obstacles in the lives of people with a mental illness is the absence of adequate, affordable and secure accommodation. Living with a mental illness - or recovering from it - is difficult even in the best circumstances. Without a decent place to live it is virtually impossible.

In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described homelessness as a 'national obscenity'. There are currently an estimated 105,000 Australians who are homeless on any given night, with an even greater number unstably housed. There is no clear data on the proportion of these people who experience mental illness, but estimates are as high as 75 per cent.

In March 2009, the Mental Health Council of Australia launched its new report Home Truths: Mental Health, Housing and Homelessness in Australia. Home Truths explores the relationships between housing, homelessness and mental health, and considers appropriate models to support and accommodate people experiencing mental illness - so that they will have 'a decent place to live'. Australia already hosts several high performing models of housing support for people with a mental illness. They are not waiting to be invented, just supported and propagated.

The report contains strategies and recommendations to provide and support suitable, adequate housing for people experiencing mental illness. It also presents ten 'home truths' that assess what will happen if government policy does not change, and the changes that must be made to improve housing outcomes for people with a mental illness.