Homeless people with complex needs may be falling through the safety net of Government-funded homelessness refuges

31 Aug 2022

People who need help with homelessness are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Factors that contribute to homelessness include mental illness or disability, substance abuse or challenging behaviour. However, these same factors can lead to people being excluded or evicted from the refuges that are meant to provide the safety net to support them.

In reviewing the conditions of access to Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS), the NSW Ombudsman Paul Miller has found that some SHS providers are imposing conditions of access to their services that can act as barriers for homeless people with high or complex needs.

People may be eligible for a particular SHS, such as refuges that specialise in supporting young people or that specialise in supporting women and their children. However, even if eligible they may be excluded when the provider imposes additional conditions on their service or, if they are accepted, they may be evicted later if they breach additional rules set by the provider.

At the same time, SHS providers are grappling with the difficulties associated with meeting the needs of their clients, managing associated risks, fulfilling contractual and duty of care obligations, and dealing with waiting lists and service system shortages.

The review started with a complaint to the Ombudsman about a homeless minor who was evicted by a number of SHS and then pre-emptively banned by others because of her history of violent and challenging behaviour. At times, she slept on the street and at others, the only bed available to her was in hospital.

In his report tabled in Parliament today, Specialist homelessness services: helping people with high or complex needs, Mr Miller found that an underlying problem is that the NSW Government has provided inadequate rules, guidance, and support to SHS about when it is, and is not, permissible and appropriate for SHS to consider excluding or evicting a homeless person.

The providers are required to comply with the Specialist Homelessness Services Program Specifications 2021. However, these specifications provide no guidance on allowable exclusions. Similarly, there are no rules or requirements to govern how providers make eviction decisions.

Mr Miller also found that:

  • The minor in the complaint case was effectively locked out of the homelessness system.
  • Homeless people can also be excluded from government-supplied temporary motel-style accommodation, sometimes with bans lasting for up to a year at a time.
  • Gaps, waiting lists and service shortages in the wider service system also affect access to SHS.
  • There is insufficient oversight and public reporting by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice about homeless people who are denied access to what are vital safety net services.

“Specialist Homelessness Services are designed both to assist people to deal with their immediate needs and to address the underlying factors that contribute to their homelessness,” said Mr Miller. “It is therefore vital that there are robust and comprehensive rules to govern decisions about access to SHS for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in NSW.”

Recommendations to the Department of Communities and Justice  

The report makes recommendations to the Department of Communities and Justice to improve access to SHS for homeless people with complex needs. These include:

  • mapping the SHS sector to determine the supply of services by specialisation that are physically accessible to people with disabilities, and assisting relevant SHS to undertake necessary modifications to provide physically accessible facilities for people with disabilities
  • developing, in consultation with the SHS sector, comprehensive and consolidated policy and contractual requirements on access, exclusion, eviction, and withdrawal of services for eligible homeless people
  • undertaking regular auditing of SHS policies and practices in relation to access, exclusion, eviction, and withdrawal of service to ensure they do not allow for exclusions, evictions or withdrawal of services that are not supported by Specialist Homelessness Services Program requirements
  • introducing changes to the Rentstart Assistance Policy, including criteria for decisions about the duration of exclusions from Temporary Accommodation
  • publishing information annually about exclusions from Temporary Accommodation
  • collecting and reporting publicly on the number of homeless people subject to exclusion, eviction and withdrawal of services, reasons for these, and the outcomes for those people
  • setting a timeframe for public reporting on outcomes data for homeless people.

What are Specialist Homelessness Services?  

The NSW Government’s Homelessness Strategy 2018-2023 aims to give people in need more than just a bed in crisis. The response in NSW is built around Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS). SHS are community service providers that receive funding from the NSW Government. In 2020-21 there were 335 SHS agencies providing some form of assistance in NSW.

Each SHS specialises in assisting different client groups including young people, single women and single men, and women and children escaping family and domestic violence. Some of these people may have complex needs and challenging behaviour. Providers may experience difficulties in attempting to provide services to these clients, while meeting their contractual and duty of care obligations to other clients and their staff.

Read full report