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Housing must be a priority in mental health reform

By Virginia Walker - posted Monday, 18 November 2019

As the CEO of a leading regional community service provider of housing and mental health services, I welcome the inclusion of housing and homelessness as a focus in last week's Productivity Commission mental health report.

Our organisation (Momentum Collective) provides housing and support to people who live with severe mental illness in the Tweed and Northern Rivers regions of NSW through a residential rehabilitation program. Our referrals come directly from acute mental health inpatient services for people who are at risk of being discharged without a home to go to.

The program is highly effective in providing much needed support to people coming out of hospital who need to rebuild their lives. Our teams provide 24/7 support and work collaboratively with a range of partner organisations to assist people to connect with services across health, housing, income support and community participation.


While the program is extremely effective and well received it is limited to hospital referrals, restricted to certain areas and our greatest challenge is finding affordable, long term accommodation for people who are mostly rely on income support.

Another welcome recommendation in the Productivity Report is the call for better coordination of programs and services across Australia. Surely we can best address the challenges we face in mental health by working on a national framework that brings state, territory and federal governments together to deliver consistently high quality programs for people living with severe mental illness.

The most important and currently neglected issue for people recovering from severe mental illness is the lack of affordable housing. We recently supported Rosie in one of our residential rehabilitation services in regional NSW. Rosie is a woman in her 50s who had experienced great trauma in her life. When we met Rosie she had been discharged from the local hospital where she had been an inpatient for several months.

Prior to her hospitalisation Rosie had been sleeping rough for two years. She told us that she had slept on floors in public toilets in an effort to remain safe. She had lived with severe mental illness since her late teens and struggled with drug addiction.

When Rosie came to stay with us she had come a long way. She had overcome her long-term addiction and the medication she needed to address her mental health was stable. Rosie was ready to work on the next stage of her life – finding stable housing and a job.

The search for housing was long and often demoralising for Rosie. She told us 'I am applying for places and competing with people who are in good jobs and with women who have kids. Why would they give me a place?'


Even with advocacy and support from our team, Rosie found it difficult to access affordable housing in her local community. We extended Rosie's stay to ensure she didn't find herself homeless again. A breakthrough came when Rosie found part-time work, which definitely improved her chances in the private rental market. With intensive support Rosie eventually found a home in the private rental market and is rebuilding her life.

Since the late 1990s we have seen governments move away from investing in social and public housing alongside a significant increase in the cost of rental properties across the nation. This has seen people on low wages and income support struggle to find and keep a home, including those without the added burden of living with a mental illness.

The private rental market plays a significant and important role in the supply of housing, but it is not always a suitable or accessible option for everyone. The Productivity Commission's mental health report recommends all levels of government turn their attention to long-term stable housing solutions for people living with severe mental illness.

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About the Author

Virginia Walker is CEO of Momentum Collective. In a three-decade career spanning sales, finance and leadership, Virginia has held executive roles in leading organisations ranging from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and EDS (now HP) to Ernst & Young and IBM.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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