Abuse and homelessness — no random correlation


On Tuesday, in a historic moment, the federal leaders of both major parties stood in Parliament to make a public apology to those who have suffered childhood abuse while in institutional care.

The speeches of the two leaders were highly emotional, and the accounts of abuse survivors have moved many to tears.

Among the many poignant words uttered yesterday in Parliament were these two sentences from Bill Shorten: “Today belongs to people who are in the grip of addiction or poverty. Today belongs to the people in the prison system whose life was shunted on the wrong track by the abuse they suffered as children.”

 

Today belongs to people who are in the grip of addiction or poverty. Today belongs to the people in the prison system whose life was shunted on the wrong track by the abuse they suffered as children.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, 22 October 2018, National apology to victims of childhood institutional violence

 

Mr Shorten’s reference to the relationship between trauma, poverty and incarceration is especially relevant to us in the welfare sector. Every day homelessness services work with people who are survivors of institutional violence, who have gone on to become trapped in the homelessness and justice systems.

This is no random correlation. The abuse is often the trigger that sets their life on a dark and difficult trajectory, one of addiction, crime, mental illness, dysfunctional relationships and social isolation.

 

 

Every day homelessness workers hear various versions of the same story. An abuse survivor turning to drugs and alcohol to blot out the pain, then becoming involved in crime to pay for the drugs, which leads to incarceration, and upon release, homelessness. Whereat the cycle begins again.

Some victims of abuse evoke greater sympathy than others. In an often dichotomous world, it’s tempting to categorise people as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’; deserving of sympathy, or undeserving.

So how do we reconcile ourselves with the fact that people that have done awful things, may also have had awful things done to them?

We might find it harder to feel sorry for people convicted of crime, but their stories are just as important, and the abuse they suffered is no less traumatic. The path their life has taken is one that was paved on the foundations of their trauma. Acknowledging their experience is also part of addressing system failures.

Their stories show the broader social consequences of childhood abuse – on our justice system, prisons, mental health facilities, homelessness services.

“ Social isolation, lack of job prospects and finding affordable housing create the perfect storm that will either lead you back into the jail system, or in some cases to attempt to take your own life.”

Last week I met Mark, a man in his 50s. He told us he had been an errant adolescent raised in a difficult family. At age 13, Mark was placed in a youth facility, where he was raped multiple times by a member of staff.

He has had multiple stints in prison over 30 years, with sentences ranging from six months to four-and-a-half years for drug offences, armed robbery and assault.  Almost every time he left prison he became homeless, and before long, re-offended.

Mark writes, “ Social isolation, lack of job prospects and finding affordable housing create the perfect storm that will either lead you back into the jail system, or in some cases to attempt to take your own life.”

Mark’s most recent jail term ended in June 2017, after which he was exited into a rooming house in Collingwood, where he says drug dealing is a daily occurrence, and violence is rife. According to the ABS definition, Mark is in a form of tertiary homelessness.

“By all means I am thankful for a roof over my head, but the challenges that I face living there aren’t easy.  The illegal activity going on doesn’t help as I try and live a life that is different from the last 20 years.”

What Mark wants is what we all want. A safe, permanent, affordable home that allows us to live a normal life, gives us the dignity and self-respect to form functional relationships, and enables us to look for work, engage in study and be a contributing member of society.

But too often, prisoners are exited into marginal forms of accommodation and homelessness. Our data shows that in Victoria over the past five years, the number of people exiting prison into homelessness has grown by 188%.

 

 

Of course, not every person who has been to prison has been abused, and not everyone who has been abused ends up in prison. But the relationship between the two is inescapable.

Also undeniable is that there are policy solutions that can prevent abuse survivors from being trapped in an insidious cycle of incarceration, homelessness and recidivism. We can’t undo the abuse and trauma that people have been subjected to. But we can help them get off the revolving door.

In the lead-up to the election, CHP is calling on the major parties to commit to providing more dedicated support and housing for people leaving institutional settings, such as prison, to prevent them becoming homeless, relapsing into drug addiction, and re-offending.

It’s a no-brainer policy solution that could improve the lives of so many if implemented, giving them the best chance of getting out of prison, and staying out.

Read our State Election Platform here