Children at risk of being removed from their families as Tasmanian housing crisis deepens
Lekita Smith always told herself she would smoke until the day she died.
Key points: Hobart City Mission warns the rental crisis is increasing the number of families at risk of having their children removed Lekita and Justin have been warned their baby son will be cared for without suitable housing They say their past struggles have worked against them in the private rental market
The 26-year-old experienced trauma as a child, was in an emotionally abusive relationship as a teenager and had her older children taken from her when she became homeless.
Ms Smith used to smoke weed as a coping mechanism, but that all changed a few years ago when she met her partner Justin Williams and became pregnant with her now seven-month-old son George.
“[George] changed us completely … we are 100 percent better people because of him,” she said.
Mr Williams has not had an easy life either.
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First introduced to drugs by a family member when he was 15, the now 38-year-old admits he has done things he is not proud of.
“I ended up running away from home, committing crimes and using drugs,” he said.
But the pair say they are determined not to let their past dictate their future and have worked incredibly hard to give up drugs and stay clean by seeking help from Hobart City Mission, mental health professionals and drug and alcohol support services.
The couple managed to find stable accommodation through Centacare Evolve Housing at New Norfolk in southern Tasmania when Ms Smith was pregnant.
She said it made her feel whole for the first time.
But after a break-in at their home, the couple were told it was not safe and left the property before they could organize another home to live in.
Ms Smith and Mr Williams say their current housing is not perfect, but they need to keep a roof over their son’s head. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)
For more than a year, they have been struggling to find safe and stable housing, which they understand is a requirement if they want to keep their son.
“We were told if we couldn’t find housing, George would have to be put into care until we found somewhere,” Ms Smith said.
“We don’t want to spend a minute without him; he’s too important to us,” Mr Williams said.
Previous struggles hurt chances
Mr Williams and Ms Smith have been lucky enough to live with relatives and in temporary accommodation while they look for suitable housing, but this is not a long-term solution.
The couple would prefer a three-bedroom house in a safe neighborhood so that their older children can stay with them.
They also need a home that is close to public transportation, since neither of them drive.
They found their perfect home on the private rental market but were unable to complete the application because they did not have the necessary rental references.
“There was a good house in our price range of about $350 a week, and we started applying for it, but we didn’t go through with it because we couldn’t fill out the rest of the forms,” Mr. Williams said.
“Obviously we’ve had problems in the past, and that’s not what private landlords want,” Ms Smith said.
“Landlords don’t see how much you’ve changed, they don’t look past it … they just think, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to my property?'”
Families with troubled pasts say they can’t compete with other renters in the rental market. (ABC News: Jordan Young)
After being on the public housing waiting list for months, the family was recently given a choice of two homes in the greater Hobart area.
While they are grateful to have an accommodation option when so many Tasmanians are still waiting, they say both homes are unsuitable because they are not close to public transport, are in areas where they worry they will increase their risk of recidivism, and away from their support network.
“We’re taking something that we don’t think is suitable for us, but we’re taking it because it’s all about George,” Mr Williams said.
“I can’t find work without relying on transportation.”
Children at risk of homelessness
Figures recently published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics have revealed that there is a growing number of people experiencing homelessness across Tasmania.
On census night in 2021, 2,350 people in Tasmania said they were experiencing homelessness, compared to 1,622 in 2016.
Tenants’ Union of Tasmania general counsel Ben Bartl said there simply wasn’t enough accommodation for those who needed it.
“We get calls every week from parents who are worried about what’s going to happen to them and their families; they’re worried that they’re not going to be able to fit everyone in a car or a caravan,” he said.
“They’re worried about being shut out of rental properties because they have kids.”
Ms McLean says every Tasmanian child “deserves to have a safe place to live”. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)
Children and Young People’s Commissioner Leanne McLean said in a statement: “The link between access to stable housing, family breakdown and statutory child removal is internationally known.”
She said ensuring children were safe and supported throughout the first 1,000 days of their lives made the biggest difference to their future development.
“Every Tasmanian child deserves to have a safe place to live. It’s their right too,” Ms McLean said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Children and Young People said: “For families experiencing problems affecting the safety and well-being of their children, housing instability is often one of the contributing factors.
“However, housing instability or homelessness on their own do not lead to children entering statutory care.”
The latest census figures show that homelessness is on the rise in Tasmania. (ABC News: Luke Bowden) What is the solution?
Not-for-profit organization Hobart City Mission has seen an increase in demand for its support services over the past 12 months, which include emergency assistance, family and housing support and options for single fathers who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
CEO Harvey Lennon said that without these programs there is a high risk that some young children will end up in care because their parents cannot put a roof over their heads.
“It’s certainly a risk and is a growing risk in the environment we’re living in right now.”
Mr Lennon said the Tasmanian Government not only needed to provide a range of housing options, but it also needed to better support organizations that help people look after a rental property or stay in long-term employment.
The Tenants’ Union of Tasmania wants the Tasmanian government to review the current Residential Tenancies Act 1997 and introduce a standard application form for all prospective tenants in the private rental market.
“It will remove discrimination and ensure that everyone is on an equal footing,” Mr Bartl said.
A Tasmanian Government spokesperson said the Government recognizes the barriers and challenges families face in securing safe accommodation, which is why more than $36 million is invested in specialist homelessness services each year.
Baby George enjoys getting on with life while his parents look for more suitable housing. (ABC News: Maren Preuss) What does the future look like?
Although their housing situation is not ideal, Mr Williams and Ms Smith remain committed to giving George the best education he can have, regardless of their circumstances.
George is enrolled in weekly swimming lessons and is learning new things every day, while Mr Williams is actively looking for work.
“Think about what you have today and not what you don’t have,” Ms Smith said.
“It may feel like it’s never going to work out, but it does in the end; it will if you keep working for it.”
Anyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness can call Housing Connect 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1800 800 588.
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