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Twenty people share a single three-bedroom house in Perth. Is public housing part of WA's youth justice problems?

Western Australia is setting troubled children on a "fast-track" to detention and prison through housing policies that result in severe overcrowding and homelessness, according to families and justice advocates.

Lawyer Kate Davis represents a Perth family with several young children who are currently staying in a three-bedroom home with 20 residents, including some who have behaved violently after spending time in prison.

“I worry that it's a fast-track to prison for these kids,” Ms Davis said.

"The Housing Authority's eviction of children to homelessness is a significant contributor to the youth justice problem [that] the government is grappling with at the moment.

"Our state government needs to take responsibility and improve these practices around housing in order to get better outcomes in the youth justice area."

The comments come amid calls to lift the age of criminal responsibility and hold an inquiry into systemic problems in the juvenile justice system, which have seen children housed in adult prisons and confined to their cells for more than 20 hours a day.

Barbara Abraham and her husband Elder moved into the Queens Park home – where her adult son has a tenancy — with her five grandchildren after the family was evicted from another public housing property leased through a not-for-profit.

But she fears the disruption caused by severe overcrowding in the home will set the children on a dangerous path.

"If they're not dead, they're going to be in jail," Ms Abraham said.

"I'm really stressed, stressed right out," she said.

One of the children has already spent time in detention at Banksia Hill, and another – a 13-year-old – was bitten by a police dog last month after police were called to investigate a spate of burglaries in St James.

The boy is not facing any charges over the incident and police are still investigating the use of the police dog.

Ms Abraham said she was powerless to remove the children from a chaotic and unstable environment because the family had nowhere else to go, having had several applications for public housing rejected.

“I don't mind myself because I used to live in a tent in the bush, but for my grandchildren to be growing up in this way … it's not good for anyone,” Mrs Abraham said.

The Department of Communities, which oversees the Housing Authority, said in a written decision that the couple had an "unsatisfactory" history in their previous six public housing tenancies.

"The Department has done everything it can to assist the Abrahams in remedying the issues to sustain their housing tenancies, including extensive access to support services, however, Communities must also consider the safety and wellbeing of the broader community," said a department spokesperson in a written response to questions. 

The department said the Abrahams are currently on a waitlist for a house through a community service provider. 

It said eviction is a last resort and that tenants are given opportunities to rectify any issues, particularly when there are children in the home.

"Where termination or eviction proceedings are initiated in households that include children, child protection officers will engage with the family to offer appropriate support or intervention services," said the spokesperson.

The Department said 12 children in nine public housing tenancies were evicted in the 2021–22 financial year, and six in 2020–21. A moratorium on evictions was in place for the year from April 2020 to April 2021.

A total 388 children were evicted from 171 tenancies in 2016–17. 

Ms Davis, who is also a researcher at Murdoch University, disputed the most recent figures, saying they do not match up with her own observations. 

Aboriginal homelessness advocate Betsy Buchanan believes WA's youth justice issues today are directly linked to housing policies that have disproportionately affected Aboriginal families.

"I absolutely believe that it's central to what's going on, the Banksia tragedy, their behaviour, these tragedies of violence in the street," she said.

Ms Buchanan said the 17-year-old boy charged with murder over the death of a pregnant mother after a brick was thrown in a Karawara car park last month had a long history of chronic homelessness, along with his mother.

"I've lost count of the number of times the family rang me totally distraught, saying please, please, can you get me a house?" Ms Buchanan said.

"And I used to run into the mum in the street when I was catching the train … and she'd sort of hug me and say, 'Please, can you get me a house? I'm so desperate'."

Overcrowding a hotbed for troubled lives

57-year-old Cherie Nannup sleeps on the couch in a three-bedroom private rental where she is one of eight residents, including six of her grandchildren.

She said some of the children had traumatic histories, including abuse that she said occurred while they were in state care, but the housing situation did not allow her to give troubled children an opportunity to thrive.

"I'm just looking at my grandkids — have I got another one that's going to be back in jail? Or have I got another one that's going to hit drugs?," Ms Nannup said.

Five of her grandchildren are wards of the state — three boys who share one room and two girls who share another — technically in the care of the Department of Communities. Another granddaughter lives at a shelter with her young son while she waits for public housing.

Ms Nannup, who is unable to drive and uses crutches due to having a leg amputated in her childhood, said she was kicked off the waiting list for public housing after she declined two Housing Authority homes that she said were unsuitable — one because she found drug needles and sachets at the home, another because it was too far from shopping amenities and public transport.

The Department for Communities confirmed Ms Nannup was removed from the list, saying she had rejected three properties. 

"Ms Nannup was presented with three suitable properties between 2019 to 2021, all of which met the specified requirements listed on her public housing application within her nominated zone," said the department spokesperson. 

"Ms Nannup declined each of the accommodation offers presented.

"In keeping with public housing policy, individuals who decline a suitable offer of accommodation without a valid reason, may have their application withdrawn so that other individuals with demonstrated housing needs can be supported." 

The Department said Ms Nannup was put back on the waiting list for public housing in November. 

Mark McGowan announces funding boost for Banksia Hill

"Wait lists for public housing can be influenced by several factors, including the area in which housing is being sought, the turnover of properties in that region, the type of accommodation and number of bedrooms required, and the number of people ahead of the applicant on the wait list," the spokesperson said. 

While she waits, Ms Nannup lives in the standard and size of private rental she can afford, but said she worries about the long-term effects on her family. 

"You're singing out as a grandmother that you need this help, that my home is falling apart because of the situation we're in," she said.

In the case of Mr and Ms Abraham, the Department said in a written decision that their request for housing was rejected because of "a history of severe overcrowding, excessive consumption of alcohol, disruptive behaviour, non-payment of tenancy accounts [and] excessive property damage".

But Ms Abraham said many issues had arisen because she and Elder had consistently taken in members of their family who themselves would otherwise have been homeless.

She said any issues were attributed to the tenancy-holder, irrespective of whether they were responsible for the damage or disruption, she said.

Now, having been made homeless themselves, the couple had been taken in by their son John, putting the grandchildren in their care into an unstable and overcrowded home.

The Department has also attempted to evict John Abraham but the order has been temporarily blocked by the Federal Court.

Ms Davis said earlier this year she had raised concerns with the authority that the eviction of Mr and Ms Abraham would result in rolling evictions and mass homelessness across the family, as the newly homeless moved in with their relatives, creating more problems.

She said these Housing Authority policies were setting children up for failure.

Government statistics show that about 50 per cent of the total 256 tenancies that were terminated in 2021–22 were households with at least one Indigenous tenant.

The link between youth homelessness and higher rates of incarceration had been established in multiple Australian research papers, including a trends paper by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Of the 629 young people who went into youth detention in WA last year, 125 were wards of the state.

Miriuwung and Gajerrong woman Lulkbudia McLean is a digital campaigner at Reinvestment WA, formed in 2014 to advocate for children in the justice system.

She grew up in overcrowded public housing in the Kimberley, and believes stable homes are key to a better future for young Indigenous people.

"Our children deserve a right to a full life where they are thriving, and to be able to dream a life for themselves outside of the walls of a prison," she said.

She would like to see more investment in early interventions that divert young people away from crime in the first place.

"Towards actually creating safe and thriving communities, which means meeting people's basic needs," she said.

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