Early intervention is needed to reduce disruptive behaviour
Early intervention to prevent disruptive behaviour is limited. Strikes can be issued against tenants with mental health, family violence, drug and alcohol, or inter-generational issues. The Magistrate sometimes rules against the Department’s applications to terminate tenancies for these more vulnerable tenants because of circumstances beyond the tenants’ control or because it would cause undue hardship. The Department recognises that issuing strikes against these tenants may not be the best way to manage tenancies and support them.
We found that tenants with a history of mental illness and family violence had been issued with strikes or recommended for eviction. Strikes were issued in line with the Department’s Mental Health and Family Violence procedures, which both state that ‘standard procedures should be followed’ to manage disruptive behaviour. Within the complaint database, we found evidence of:
- 125 complaints involving tenants with ‘mental health’ issues, of which 18 were issued with a first or second strike as they had ‘permitted’ the behaviour
- 62 complaints categorised as ‘domestic violence’, of which 12 tenants were issued a strike.
Our review of 5 applications for termination where mental health concerns were involved found the Court did not agree to terminate the tenancies. The eviction process can cause unnecessary stress for tenants and support workers and unsuccessful eviction processes may be an inefficient use of Court and Departmental resources.
While there are a variety of options available to the Department to support these tenants, they are not commonly used. For example, the Department can offer 6-month fixed term tenancies if tenants agree to meet certain conditions, such as no further disruptive behaviour incidents. We found limited guidance for staff on when and how to use these options, which resulted in strikes being routinely issued. Department resources may be more effectively used through consideration of lessons learned from previous Court decisions, improved guidance and training for staff, and earlier intervention for these more vulnerable tenants.
The Department does not make the most of opportunities to collect tenant information to help limit disruptive behaviour. Staff have multiple contact points with tenants but they are not fully used to identify needs and provide early interventions. For example:
- Diversity information that could assist with early intervention is not routinely collected. Information on English as a second language, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, mental illness, disability, and literacy status is only voluntarily provided by tenants in rental applications.
- Information is not consistently gathered and recorded during routine rental property inspections that can occur every 3-12 months, which can identify tenants experiencing difficulties and inform the Department of potential tenant needs. Warning signs can include hoarding, poor property maintenance, children at home instead of school, and overcrowding.
Early intervention has been recognised by organisations such as the Equal Opportunity Commission, Tenancy WA, and the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute as one of the most appropriate methods to help tenants with complex issues, and families with inter-generational dysfunction. Early identification of ‘at risk’ tenancies and referral to support services can be achieved by undertaking an appropriate risk assessment prior to a tenancy commencing or early on in the tenancy. Intervention services are available but are currently limited to:
- at the beginning of a tenancy – a short ‘Help is Available’ brochure that lists support services
- each time a tenant is involved in a complaint investigation that results in issue of a strike or formal warning – tenant support via STEP is offered
- referrals – can be used if mental health or child protection concerns are evident.
Early intervention may help the Department to support tenants, reduce the overall incidence of disruptive behaviour, and reduce the need for evictions.
More information about tenant behaviour needs to be shared
Information sharing within and between agencies is essential but does not always happen as needed. The Department relies heavily on support from a variety of agencies and service providers to effectively manage tenants, but staff are not routinely informed of critical information or the outcomes of their mental health and child protection referrals. This limits the Department’s ability to effectively support tenants.
We found important information about tenants is not routinely shared within the Department or with important external stakeholders. For example, little information is communicated by some other areas of the Department to staff managing disruptive tenants. There is no formal information sharing arrangements with the Parole Board, Department of Justice, Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Fire and Emergency Services, and the Department’s Disability Services division.
Key documents relating to intra and inter-agency communications are not up to date. Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) with the Department’s Child Protection and Family Support unit, the Mental Health Commission, and Police were drafted between 2010 and 2014. The MOUs do not reflect current information sharing arrangements and agency relationships. The Department advised that the Mental Health Commission is no longer able to assist with mental health referrals and support, yet no alternative arrangements are in place.
We note the Department has challenges in sharing information due to privacy concerns. However, there are also missed opportunities for the Department, Police and support service providers to work together to support tenants with a history of disruptive behaviour. For example, the Department and Police routinely share information to help investigate complaints, but Police are not notified when disruptive tenants move between public housing properties. During our audit, Police identified this as important information that could assist them to better carry out their role. The Department already has a staff member stationed at Police who could assist with this information sharing.
The Department follows strict processes around the sharing of personal and sensitive information within and between agencies. For example, its current policy prevents the sharing of information about a tenant’s mental health unless the tenant has agreed, or poses a risk to themselves or others. However, supporting tenants to avoid homelessness depends on an understanding of each tenant’s unique and complex circumstances, so sharing this valuable information is important.
The Department could better share its focus on tenant support
The beneficial social outcomes the Department hopes to achieve, such as helping tenants to engage with support services, to prevent or reduce further disruptive behaviour and contribute to safe communities, are not well publicised. The Department is missing opportunities to increase public awareness of how it now works to achieve better outcomes for tenants and the wider community. The Withers Urban Renewal Project in Bunbury is one example of this positive work in action.
Little information is available to help neighbours living near disruptive tenants understand the challenges the Department faces as it balances the provision of stable housing and ensuring tenants are not disruptive. A ‘Responsible Tenancy’ education and awareness campaign was recommended in the Strategy (Table 1), but it has yet to be fully actioned. The campaign to raise tenant and public awareness of obligations also highlighted a need to explain complaint handling procedures.
Limited information on how the Department manages disruptive behaviour is available on its website, in tenant newsletters, and in brochures and fact sheets. Without a good understanding of these aims neighbours are unlikely to know how best to engage with the Department.