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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 5126

Senator ALLISON(7.37 p.m.) —I rise tonight to draw the attention of my fellow senators to the chronic shortage of housing for people with disabilities. People with disabilities are amongst the most disadvantaged group in this country. Not only do they suffer from the kind of discrimination and isolation which comes largely from a public ignorance and misunderstanding of their disabilities, but they also suffer the effects of acute reticence on the part of state and federal governments to take on the issues which affect them so seriously.

One of my goals during this, my first term in this place, is to have a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities and their carers. I meet very regularly with people who have disabilities and with their families, their carers and those who work with them. It has become very clear to me that housing is the one area in which the needs of people with disabilities are very seriously deficient. It is no exaggeration to say that today there is a chronic shortage of safe, suitable and affordable housing for people who have disabilities, be they physical, intellectual or psychiatric.

A study of housing needs of people with disabilities conducted in 1991 by Sach and Associates identified the high demand for housing and the insufficient supply as a major issue. Conservative estimates cited in the report were that there were 51,000 people with a disability who had housing needs, 37,500 of whom lived in the community but required rehousing. Keys Young estimated that in 1993 in New South Wales alone between 10,000 and 20,000 people with a psychiatric disability were likely to need public housing compared with the 2,500 applications that had been received in the previous three years.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1993 reported that the national trend to deinstitutionalise people with psychiatric disabilities had not been adequately resourced, with very serious consequences for some of the people concerned. It said at the time:

People affected by mental illness face a critical shortage of appropriate and affordable housing. The absence of suitable supported accommodation is the single biggest obstacle to recovery and effective rehabilitation.

A large proportion of people with mental illness live at home with their families, who urgently need more respite care.

Homeless shelters, refuges and boarding houses are now functioning, de facto, as a major component of the `accommodation provided by our society for thousands of Australians affected by mental illness'. This is completely unacceptable.

It is true to say that the deinstitutionalisation of the past two decades has very substantially added to the unmet need for housing of people with disabilities. It is also true to say that deinstitutionalisation properly managed and implemented gives people with disabilities control over their own lives and their own destinies.

Unfortunately for these people the process has not been accompanied by adequate sup port out there in the community. Turning people out of institutions without support or proper accommodation is not deinstitutionalisation, as I think it was intended to be; I would call it neglect. In 1994, one year after the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission study, the so-called Burdekin inquiry, I was a joint author of a study which examined the progress which had been made in Victoria in addressing the findings of that report. I found that the reality was that in terms of housing there had been very little improvement.

The 1992-93 federal budget, as I understand it, did seek to address the housing shortfall with what was called the community housing program. Its stated goal was to add 25,000 dwellings by the year 2000. I would be very interested to know how many dwellings had actually been added to the stock of public housing in our community that is suited to people with disabilities. I think it would be reasonable to say that that program has not yet met its target.

As senators will know, the federal government is currently attempting to renegotiate its housing agreement with the states and, in so doing, it is stepping back from its responsibilities for public housing, such as the one I have just mentioned. As if that were not enough, the government also plans to reduce the amount of rent assistance available to single people with disabilities who share accommodation. This is one of the most disturbing and socially regressive measures that have come out of the budget this year.

How is it that any government can choose to make it even harder for people with disabilities to access private rental housing in an environment where there is already such a huge unmet need? Clearly, the situation will only get worse if this government abolishes tied funding for housing programs for those with disabilities.

I believe this area is far too important to leave to the private sector. Not only do those with disabilities often need housing which is specifically modified to meet their needs but they need housing which is in towns and cities with facilities close to hand and employment also easily accessible. To adequately meet the housing needs of disabled people requires commitment and planning on the part of the federal government to ensure that their needs are made a national priority. The federal government, in my view, should be setting a precedent for commitment for all governments; it certainly should not be withdrawing its support.

I was very pleased to notice this week that Premier Richard Court in Western Australia announced that his government intends to allocate an additional $7 million to public housing for people with disabilities. I hope this goes some way to addressing the unmet needs of people with disabilities in Western Australia. But it is my sincere hope that the Senate will not forget the thousands of others throughout Australia who will simply remain on public housing waiting lists. The coalition government's intention to step back from providing grants for public housing and to provide welfare instead in the form of rent assistance will not lead to more public housing in Australia—and it is my view that it will certainly not meet the needs of disabled people in our country.