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Ombudsman urges better housing for mentally i -

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ELEANOR HALL: The New South Wales Ombudsman is calling for the State's strict privacy laws to be
relaxed in order to help mentally ill Australians get better access to public housing.

In his report, which he released today, Bruce Barbour says the laws are hindering coordination
between government agencies.

And he told our reporter Simon Santow that too many people with mental health problems are being
left homeless at vulnerable times, like after they've been discharged from hospital.

BRUCE BARBOUR: What we found was that there was really a lack of clear guidance for frontline
staff. There was a lack of strategic direction and support for those staff. And there was a lack of
understanding about ensuring proper accountability and governance and reviewing the mechanisms to
actually see whether they were providing the outcomes they were designed to provide.

SIMON SANTOW: And what is the impact upon people with mental health issues?

BRUCE BARBOUR: Well clearly mental illness is a very significant issue that we need to deal with in
the community. It's one of the major pathways into homelessness. If we want people to live in
social housing and public housing and to live relatively independent lives they need to be assisted
to not only gain access to that housing but also to support them, to maintain it so that it's
stable.

SIMON SANTOW: So if you don't coordinate properly will people actually be homeless?

BRUCE BARBOUR: People will be homeless and that was one of the concerning things that we found.
When we spoke to for example the SAP (special access programs) sector, which provide refuge-type
accommodation for people on a temporary basis, they were unable to cope with the demand on their
services and they were also very concerned about the failure of JGOS (Joint Guarantee of Service
for People with Mental Health Problems) to ensure that people had proper support to live
independently in public housing.

SIMON SANTOW: Now JGOS is an attempt to coordinate various agencies - police, community services -
in order to help these people properly. If the coordination effort has failed what does that say
about the task?

BRUCE BARBOUR: On the one hand it says that we need to do much better. On the other hand there are
new initiatives that are coming into play with the Housing and Human Services Accord which started
in 2007. And we see an opportunity for that to take over from JGOS and to work more effectively in
the future.

But our investigation identified three very clear areas where we need to do considerably more. We
need to do better discharge planning. It's essential when people with mental health issues go into
hospital that there is proper coordination when they come out to make sure that they've got a
proper stable environment to go back to.

We also recognise once again the importance of proper information exchange. Without agencies being
in a position to exchange information they are unable to meet the needs of this sector of the
community and if they are not able to do that then there is a very real risk to people's safety and
welfare and so we're calling on the Government to relax privacy laws to allow there to be a simple
and very practical system for agencies who are here to help people with mental illness to support
them in accommodation to allow them to exchange information to do that properly.

SIMON SANTOW: So typically, how would privacy laws get in the way of somebody with mental health
issues being accommodated properly?

BRUCE BARBOUR: Well many of the privacy requirements are based around the issue of consent. Now I'm
a great advocate of privacy. It's clear that people's personal information should remain that and
we should have very clear safeguards in place but where people are not necessarily in a position to
give informed consent, where people are suffering from a mental illness, where they're going into
hospital or they're going into the mental health system and they need to have accommodation, they
need help with shopping and cleaning and paying bills, they need help to ensure that their
medication is appropriate, that they're taking their medication. For people who are there to
provide this sort of support there needs to be adequate information otherwise they're not able to
actually perform that support and provide that assistance.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the New South Wales Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, speaking to our reporter Simon
Santow.