Doctor: homeless strategy wrong

THE state government could virtually wipe out homelessness by rethinking how it spends money on the issue, says a Royal Perth Hospital doctor.

Amanda Stafford is the lead clinician of Royal Perth Hospital’s homeless team and this week addressed a mental health, housing and homelessness forum organised by Shelter WA.

“From my point of view the system is not dealing in a smart way with homelessness,” Dr Stafford said.

“Government departments and agencies are spending a lot of money on people who just cycle through their services.”

Dr Stafford says, as an example, people who are released from prison and straight onto the streets are almost guaranteed to be back behind bars before long, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Helping them get into housing would be far cheaper in the long run, she says.

• Dr Amanda Stafford says a reallocation of funding could virtually wipe out homelessness in WA. Photo by Steve Grant

Similarly, the stress of living on the streets exacerbates mental health problems, so homeless people are over-represented in emergency departments and clinics.

Dr Stafford says getting them a home could take a significant strain off the system.

“The key is getting government departments to talk together and act together and work with the NGOs. It’s no point saying to Housing that we have 9000 homeless people so you need to provide 9000 homes, because they don’t have the capacity.”

But Dr Stafford says if they can convince the state government, and particularly Treasury, to reallocate some funding from departments that use it for band-aid solutions, towards Housing, it would make a difference.

The homeless team has recently been working with researchers from UWA to identify exactly what homelessness costs, and are on the way to getting ethical approval to cross-reference information from a range of government departments.

Dr Stafford says once they’ve collated the information, which she hopes will happen within 12 months, the data can be taken to health minister Roger Cook with a raft of suggestions on where money can be reallocated to provide more housing to get people off the streets.

She acknowledges that there will still be challenges, particularly over WA’s mental health system. Despite a raft of inquiries over recent years and a new legislative act, the system is still in crisis, and Dr Stafford says that can be sheeted home to the meth epidemic.

“I don’t think they have got to grips with what to do, given the circumstances have changed; it was a nicely thought-out plan but it has spun out of control because of the meth epidemic.”

by STEVE GRANT

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