A garden and art project wasn’t really going to fix things in this Housing NSW complex but for Christine Hannan it is an opportunity to shine a light on this housing complex, the positive contribution the tenants achieved and to identify the issues that remain to be addressed.
Four hundred metres from the newly developed village shops of affluent Hunters Hill sits a Housing NSW complex of 50 units, which according to the local Police, has over the last five years, had more than its fair share of call outs, drug overdoses and concerns about ill people not receiving sufficient support. The street is a quiet no through road, easy walking distance to the shops and the block itself resides next to one of the most significant historical residences in Hunters Hill. There is a stark contrast between the quiet grace of the historic residence nestled in generous shade and the sheet curtained windows of the 50s built Housing complex exposed to the heat and glare but conveniently hidden from the public gaze.
Built over Sydney sandstone with 2 levels sitting below street level, the ground level receives little light, and has been colloquially referred to as Death Row – following a number of drug overdoses. Cut into the rock these units are prone to mould, damp and over the last several years have been difficult to tenant. There is a central atrium which has three mature beautiful Bangalow palms which soar up to the light and display their bunches of inflorescence flowers – many residents comment on their beauty. However, there is no soil to plant additional plants, the ground is damp and littered with rubbish, and until recently dead gold fish could be seen thrown out on the ground from a resident fish breeder.
The block had been quite stable and quiet until about six to seven years ago, then Housing started to increase their unit allocations to 30 to 40 year olds with drug and alcohol issues and mental illness. Alleged drug dealings and anti-social behaviour increased with the community being negatively impacted by repeated drug overdoses, graffiti and vandalism.
The community was difficult to engage – worn out by a growing number of residents with alcohol, addictions and/or mental illness, the community felt invisible – stating they would complain and report to Housing and Police yet little changed.
Agencies recognized that they were individually responding to incidents and complaints and in theory could see the benefit from greater collaboration. My agency, Hunters Hill Ryde Community Services (HHRCS) was delivering an Emergency Relief program – which 20% of the residents were regularly using, highlighting the cycle of addiction and mental health issues many vulnerable residents were experiencing.
An earlier attempt at collaboration between Council, Police, Housing, Tenant Participation Resource Service (TPRS) and HHRCS resulted in one joint meeting and one social BBQ day on site.Housing recognised that more needed to be done and awarded HHRCS with a community development grant.
The garden and art project
In 2014 HHRCS was awarded a grant from FACS Housing NSW to deliver a garden and art project. The residents dealt for years with complex issues – so a garden and art project wasn’t really going to fix things – and it hasn’t – but it was an opportunity to shine a light on the complex and provide an outlet for a positive contribution from the community.
The garden and art project was delivered from January through to September 2015. A community artist was contracted to assist with the art project and HHRCS worked with the coordinator from the Botanic Garden’s Community Greening Team to help deliver the garden project.
We decided to start with some balcony gardening as a way to introduce ourselves and get a sense of what people wanted. The site had very limited space to develop other gardens. The idea was to support people with a gardening interest – rather than specifically develop a community garden. From previous experience with other garden projects we recognized that people value and enjoy gardening themselves but don’t necessarily want to do it together. Also the community was disengaged and those who did give feedback felt that attention should be given to tenancy and property management rather than art and gardening.
We continued with the project and worked with those who were keen to contribute. Skilled and willing, there was a committed core of four residents and then about another six to eight who came when they could. Following discussions, and to maximize impact, it was decided to concentrate our efforts on the entrance way. Everyone uses the letterboxes, garbage bins and many enter the building via a central walkway. There had been a notice board and site directions – both of which had been vandalized and removed. Emergency services and other first time visitors found it difficult to find the units due to the layout of the building.
After getting permission from the Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) we started by doing some painting, sanding and preparation of the site – residents worked hard to prepare the site. The next session was to do the wicker bed – low water use and native plants, and some small mosaic making. So working with Community Greening we put together a water efficient garden bed.
The following sessions involved working with the artist to design and produce a series of panel art to decorate the entrance way. It was decided to do botanical designs which reflect the beautiful palms in the atrium. Residents then worked with the artist to make the panels – this involved several sessions of careful stencil paint work. All the work took place on site at the front entrance and this created interest and feedback from the rest of the resident community. Each workday we provided lunch, BBQs and afternoon teas.
As previously mentioned it soon became clear that residents had other concerns about health, safety and lack of support and that the project was at risk of being ‘window dressing’. Reporting these concerns to HHRCS management, which sadly coincided with the suicide of a Housing resident in our local park, HHRCS Management wrote to local MPs and a meeting was called with Housing NSW, Hunters Hill Council, Mental Health and HHRCS. As a result, Housing agreed to several actions including: meeting with residents individually to better understand and address their concerns; following up on outstanding repairs; conducting a safety audit; giving greater attention to allocations and; exploring the possibility of a community room. This was a significant commitment from Housing NSW and allowed us to deliver the program knowing that other concerns were receiving attention.
The project resulted in:
- Improvements to the entrance – now presents as functional and cared for;
- New relationships made between some tenants by working together on projects;
- An opportunity for residents to voice their concerns;
- A community garden bed;
- A community notice board and;
- Community art work – three weeks since completion of the project there was no vandalism evident to the art work.
- Street lighting – tenants had been living for more than 30 years without street lighting – Hunters Hill Council recently put in solar lighting as a result of a joint meeting;
- Greater on site management from FACS Housing Services;
- Good working relationships with local Lands and Housing Corporation which was integral to the delivery of the project. They were contactable, knew the site well and were sympathetic to principles of community development.
- Working with Community Greening – having worked in partnership with this program in three complexes, this program continues to deliver commitment, support and reliability.
- Support from TPRS as needed – practical and strategic.
- The week following the completion of the projects, there were two assaults, one resulting in charges and incarceration. This suggests there is plenty more work to be done.
Why does it take a letter to the Minister to get action? Tenants had been reporting problems with anti-social behaviour, disruption, longstanding maintenance issues, broken windows, rubbish and dumping, lack of cleaning in common areas for months and in some cases years; many had given up reporting. In response to this, Housing frequently states they have not responded because they have no incident reports or witness statements or thought that the contractors had done the job. Tenants reply they have lost faith in the system and some feared retribution. So problems remain unaddressed, often until they are reported to a higher authority.
Are social housing residents bearing the burden of drug and alcohol issues and mental illness in the community? Over some years residents have put up with periods of abusive language, aggressive behaviour and damage to property, however most understand the difficult role Housing has; to provide housing to all those in need. I was struck by people’s compassion, acceptance and often skill at managing these situations. I wonder whether the broader community would tolerate the behaviour frequently witnessed in some social housing complexes. These issues are conveniently hidden from the broader community and left to be dealt with by other disadvantaged residents. It also raises questions about allocations and how many ‘at risk’ tenants can you place in one complex; and how we can find meaningful activities for under occupied residents.
Does the high caseload and turnover of Housing NSW staff contribute to the problems? In the two years that I have been associated with the complex there have been four different client service officers (CSOs). Each one had hoped to achieve improvements. Twenty percent of all Housing residents have serious mental illness and each CSO has a caseload of approximately 400 tenancies – how can any CSO effectively manage that size and complexity of a portfolio?
A Personal Story
Phil, a resident, deals with mental health issues and addictions; he is in his late 30s, has a friendly demeanour and calls everyone “mate”. He was a regular participant in the work days – he sanded, painted and helped establish the garden. Since the formal part of the project has finished I have returned to the site several times early in the morning to check on the plants – Phil always comes down to have a chat and is keen to know when the next work day is happening. He said to me one morning that he was “very proud of the garden and the way he laid out the plants” and talked about the colours, the flowers and the insects that come, he then started to reminisce about the different jobs he had done in his earlier life. He gave me some advice – “when you retire mate – you need to have something to do – cause wakin’ up in the morning with nothing happenin’ messes with your mind”. I think Phil’s right.
Christine Hannan is the Social Support Worker at Hunters Hill Ryde Community Services Inc.