Sabtu, 16 Juli 2011

Licensed residential centres - confined to the back room

Licensed residential centres for people with disability, or LRCs, or licensed boarding houses, comprise a small, dark corner of the New South Wales housing system. This weekend a report by the Sydney Morning Herald's Adele Horin sheds a little light on it.



Licensed residential centres are privately owned, for-profit operations that provide accommodation and, at least in theory, care, for people with disability. An historical hangover from the early phases of deinstitutionalisation, licensed residential centres were established in the 1970s and 1980s to house persons previously accommodated in asylums and hospitals – often by people previously employed at those same institutions. There used to be scores of these places; now there are just 31, housing less than 700 persons.

The decline of the LRCs is not to be regretted. All too often they are isolating, exploitative and downright abusive places.

It is not uncommon for LRC operators to collect 80 per cent or more of a resident's pension for rent and services – sometimes residents are left with $5 per week as 'comfort money'. For this many residents get only a shared room, sometimes with three or even five other residents. They are also supposed to get access to activities away from the boarding house, and independent advocacy – but our colleagues at People With Disability report that their attempts to get in touch with residents are frustrated and, behind the closed doors, punitive cultures flourish.

So, for example, in Horin's report, one LRC resident, elderly and mentally ill, describes being punished for swearing by confinement (except to take meals and go to bed) to the back room of the boarding house for a year.

It's not going too far to say that all LRC residents have been stuck in the back room of government policy for many years now. Over the last decade, the NSW Ombudsman has three times investigated NSW Ageing, Disability and Home Care, the department responsible for regulating LRCs, and found its licensing and monitoring practices wanting. ADHC has taken action in relation to the LRC in Horin's article: an investigation last year found 37 high-level breaches of licence conditions that placed residents at risk; and now an application to the Guardianship Tribunal for an independent guardian, rather than the LRC operator, to manage the affairs of residents. In the course of the present proceedings, three residents have been relocated for their own safety. The Chair of the Tribunal asks why action wasn't taken sooner.

Like other marginal renters, LRC residents have common law contracts with their landlords and lack really effective contractual rights or dispute resolution. Law reform for occupancy agreements that reflect some basic occupancy principles, as well as some standard terms devised particularly for LRCs, is one of the actions needed from the State Government to better protect these very vulnerable persons. Another, as recommended by PWD, is stronger monitoring and enforcement action by an independent quality assurance agency.

But the third and final action must be the eventual closure of all remaining LRCs. Privately owned, for-profit services should not have a place in the future provision of accommodation and support for people with disability. People with disability in need of support or care should receive it as of right – and this is compromised where it is paid for out of the pensions of low-income people with disability and delivered by a for-profit operator. Let's instead get these people housed appropriately with social housing providers, with support from funded not-for-profit disability service providers.

The TU supports the right of people with disability to live where they choose – including in boarding houses – and believes that the wider boarding sector needs some additional measures of government support to ensure its viability, but the LRCs – that small dark segregated corner of the sector that houses only people with disability – should be consigned to history.

Update: further reports and comment by Horin on LRCs (hat-tip to Anonymous for the links):