Banning drug offenders from accessing public housing sets ‘troubling precedent’

Chief of reintegration service for former prisoners claims NSW’s new policy is ‘discriminatory’

Social workers operating in Sydney’s inner city public housing estates have slammed a new policy that denies homes to those with a history of serious drug offences, saying it sets a “troubling precedent” that further marginalises people trying to leave their past behind them.

The New South Wales government announced this week it would bar anyone either recently charged or convicted of drug supply or drug manufacture offences from accessing public housing in Sydney’s inner suburbs.

Letters were sent to staff and clients at the Community Restorative Centre, the city’s largest non-government organisation working with recently released prisoners, warning them of impending criminal checks for those on public housing waiting lists in Glebe, Waterloo, Redfern and Surry Hills.

The government says public housing towers in the suburbs have become unsafe, and the policy is designed to crackdown on drug-related harm.

But Community Restorative Centre program director, Mindy Sotiri, said the policy does nothing but shift the problem elsewhere, without addressing the complex root causes that drive drug offending.

Sotiri’s organisation works with former prisoners with complex backgrounds before and after release, helping them to reintegrate, rebuild their lives, and avoid further offending.

She said she was stunned to see the letter last week.

It was “clearly discriminatory”, she said, and would disproportionately affect Indigenous Australians, who make up 25% of all people released from prison in this area.

Sotiri fears the policy sets a dangerous precedent of further punishing and marginalising people already dealt with by the courts.

“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 told Guardian Australia.

She warned the policy mirrored deeply flawed approaches taken in the United States, where some states deny welfare, housing, and support to those with a criminal record.

“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,” Sotiri said.

“The whole point of the work that we do is saying ‘you might have done something wrong, but you’ve done your time, and now we’re going to give you every opportunity to build a life that’s not about going to prison’.”

NSW social housing minister, Pru Goward, said on Wednesday the aim of the policy was to “reduce temptation” for drugs in the estates.

Goward said that police had identified drug dealing was “particularly prevalent” in the large public housing estates involved in the policy.

“It does not mean they go to other parts of the state,” Goward told the ABC.

“But may I remind you that they are going to other parts of the state anyway. The fact is that drug dealers are part of the public housing population. This is really the first time that we’ve had the ability to manage those people.”

It mirrors tough stances taken by the federal government on welfare recipients and drugs. The stance is also reminiscent of NSW’s approach to the Martin Place tent camp.

Sydney’s tent city: homeless people rub shoulders with the elite in Martin Place

The government introduced move-on powers to remove the camp from the inner city.

Sotiri said crime statistics were stable in Sydney, despite the hype. She said effective reform in law and order often required more bravery than governments were willing to display.

“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.”


Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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