After years of sleeping rough or in cutthroat boarding houses, the hollows in Graeme Starr’s gaunt, tattooed cheeks have finally rounded out a little.

He’s eating well, no longer takes medication for schizophrenia and has stopped self-harming.

Despite a long history of mental illness, alcohol abuse and decades of homelessness, his life has undergone a profound shift since The Age interviewed him for a story about boarding houses two years ago.

The catalyst for this change is clear, he says. Graeme finally found a home.

 Graeme Starr's life has turned around because he got permanent public housing.
Graeme Starr’s life has turned around because he got permanent public housing. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Five months ago he secured a one-bedroom public housing unit in a complex for people aged over 55 in Melbourne’s north.

After a life marred by institutional child sexual abuse and periods spent in prison, he’s an example of how permanent housing creates an anchor in a chaotic life.

Homelessness advocates are urging the Victorian government to ensure the links between housing and mental illness are thoroughly aired in the state’s upcoming royal commission into mental health.

Sunday is the final day the public can give feedback on what the scope of the royal commission should include. None of the “priority themes” in the consultation relate to housing, which advocates say is a major oversight.

The state government failed to increase the size of Victoria’s social housing stocks in its first term, according to this week’s Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services. Instead it oversaw a small decline in the amount of social housing across the state.

Graeme pictured in October 2016, when he was homeless after leaving an exorbitantly expensive rooming house.
Graeme pictured in October 2016, when he was homeless after leaving an exorbitantly expensive rooming house.Credit:Jason South

Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith says homelessness both causes and prolongs mental illness, and secure housing was essential to recovery.

“You’re wasting resources trying to provide mental health services to people who don’t have stable housing,” Ms Smith said.

Historically, the mental health system included accommodation because people were ‘housed’ in institutions. When institutions closed there was an expectation patients would be accommodated in public housing, or in housing with supports attached.

But this deinstitutionalisation took place at a time when Australian governments were reducing their investment in social housing, creating a “perfect storm”, Ms Smith said.

There has been strong public interest in response to the government’s call for input into the terms of reference for the commission, with over 6000 people making a submission online.

Housing overlaps with many of the areas that have featured in discussions and feedback so far, said Victorian Housing Minister Martin Foley.

“This is exactly what the consultation process is all about – hearing from Victorians about what this ground-breaking inquiry needs to look at,” said Mr Foley.

In the past five months Graeme has gained almost 20 kilograms. He takes a daily walk with his neighbours, and is visited by an aged care worker.

When he first moved in, Graeme was dogged by self doubt.

“I didn’t think I wasn’t good enough to get it,” he says. “But after a while I started to appreciate the place. We’ve got a nice park, I meet friends there, have a barbeque.”

A survivor of child sexual abuse at a boy’s home in Newhaven, Phillip Island, Graham has lodged a request for compensation with the federal government’s national redress scheme.

He’s sanguine about the outcome. “I’ve been poor all my life so I don’t really care, I’m happy now.”

The Royal Commission will begin in March, when there will be further community consultation across Victoria.

This piece by Miki Perkins was first seen on ‘The Age‘, 27 January 2019.


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