Outreach to rooming houses a Victorian Budget priority to save lives


22 May 2019

When Tenants Victoria outreach worker Catherine Dyer visits clients living in rooming houses, she meets people who are so weak they can’t stand up.

If it wasn’t for her visits, some of her clients wouldn’t be in contact with anyone, barely speaking to another person in any given week.

“I regularly see people starving in rooming houses,” she explains. “They actually have to sit down on the floor to talk because they haven’t eaten for a couple of days or they’ve only eaten oats for five days.”

Delivering outreach to connect people in rooming houses to health services and better housing options will improve their health and save lives, says Victoria’s peak body for homelessness, Council to Homeless Persons.

67 per cent of the clients Ms Dyer has visited in the last six months report having a mental health issue, and have very little chance of accessing adequate mental health support.

“If you’re living on $10 a day, then you can’t afford to get a Myki to travel anywhere and a lot of these rooming houses are really quite remote,” Ms Dyer explains.

“It’s not uncommon for rooming house residents to say, ‘I’m not living, I’m existing’.”

Council to Homeless Persons’ State Budget Submission calls for more funding for outreach workers to support rooming house residents.

This proposal builds on several pilot programs that showed outreach workers can deliver dramatic improvements in residents’ wellbeing, including access to safer housing, connecting with health and mental health services, and improved nutrition.

With Victoria’s public and community housing waitlist at an all-time high, rooming houses are often the only option for patients exiting hospital and acute psychiatric services. Some rooming house residents are still extremely unwell, and need a supportive environment in which to recover.

Rooming houses are commonly crowded, dangerous and dirty, and can be violent with many vulnerable people crowded together under the same roof.

In one rooming house that Ms Dyer visited, a woman recently discharged from acute psychiatric care, set herself on fire in the kitchen, suffering horrendous injuries. This was traumatising both for the person directly affected and the other residents.

Ms Dyer said many of her clients have never completed a priority application for social and or public housing. They often live in rooming houses for years and years, with very little or no support. 

“Rooming house accommodation only exacerbates the mental health problems and other vulnerabilities of residents, but often there is simply no other option,” explains CHP chief executive Jenny Smith.

“While we wait for the government to address chronic shortages in social housing, and to address the shortcomings of mental health care through the Royal Commission process, we need more outreach workers who can connect residents with the medical care and other supports they need in order to start living, instead of just existing.”

Photos of rooming house conditions available on request.