People With Drug Offenses Will Face Housing Ban In Australia

By Paul Fuhr 03/09/18

Social workers have expressed concern over a new government strategy to give criminal background checks to public housing applicants. 

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Australians who have a history of drug offenses will be denied public housing, thanks to a controversial government decision this week.

According to The Guardian, the New South Wales (NSW) government announced that it would bar individuals from public housing if they’ve been “recently charged or convicted of drug supply or drug manufacture offenses.”

The new strategy, announced through a letter from the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS), will force everyone currently on the public housing waiting list to undergo a criminal record check, all in the name of "public safety."

The new strategy “has been developed in collaboration with NSW Police and is intended to make public housing estates safer by reducing drug-related crimes and incidents of antisocial behavior,” the letter stated, adding that public housing applicants in the West Sydney suburbs of Redfern, Waterloo, Surry Hills and Glebe would need to have a clean criminal record for the past five years.

Social workers swiftly criticized the decision, arguing that it not only sets a “dangerous precedent” but prevents people from moving on from their pasts. Mindy Sotiri, the program director of Sydney’s Community Restorative Centre, says that the decision blindly ignores all of the complexities behind drug offenses.

Sotiri, whose organization is dedicated to helping former inmates reintegrate into society and rebuild their lives, observed that the decision is “clearly discriminatory” in nature. 

"The key thing for me is that this is a really troubling precedent that extends punishment beyond the judicial system, which really has not worked anywhere,” Sotiri said, pointing toward similar efforts that previously failed in the U.S.

“The idea that we would even be creeping in that direction is really troubling because it’s something we’ve certainly not done brilliantly, but we’ve got a better record with that stuff and have given people a fair go.” 

NSW lawmakers, however, are quick to defend their public housing ban. The areas targeted in the FACS letter “have become honeypots for drug dealers," Social Housing Minister Pru Goward said. “What we're trying to do is to break those [areas] down. If our tenants are going to have a good shot at getting their lives back on track, we need to remove the temptation to go back onto drugs.”

Goward noted that there is more public housing available in inner-city Sydney than anywhere else in NSW. Critics aren’t convinced, though, contending that the strategy will simply turn Sydney’s suburbs into a “dumping ground for drug dealers.”

Still, Goward is holding strong with the decision, claiming that drug dealers are already part of Sydney’s public housing population. “This is really the first time that we’ve had the ability to manage those people,” she said. 

The Guardian drew parallels between the public housing ban and how NSW swept tent cities out of Sydney last year. Mindy Sotiri, for one, maintained that governments simply aren’t dealing with the drug problem at its root.

Instead of asking the right questions and engaging the right people, they’re getting lost in politics. The new strategy, for example, suggests that crime has increased to the point where the background checks are necessary, but Sotiri cited data showing otherwise.

“I think there is a bravery required in politics to actually tackle, at the obvious level, the causes of crime, rather than just pandering to this idea that things are getting worse or things are getting out of control, when that’s not really the case,” she said. “It’s not very exciting politics to say ‘we’re going to tackle homelessness now’ or ‘we’re going to put case managers into the estates.’ None of that sounds very exciting or innovative, but it’s actually what’s required.”

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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