'Low-life ghetto' proposal pilloried

17:47, Feb 16 2014

Housing mentally ill patients in portacoms and caravans on hospital sites could create "low-life ghettos", experts say.

Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) is considering providing emergency accommodation for patients to avoid discharging them onto the streets.

Possible village locations have been discussed behind closed doors, but Fairfax NZ understands they include Hillmorton, Burwood or the former Christchurch Women's hospital site on Colombo St.

The board says the lack of social housing has led to homeless patients overstaying at Hillmorton Hospital, which has already cost the organisation almost $1 million.

The move has worried health advocates.

Dr Olive Webb, a former board member and long-time champion for the intellectually disabled, said creating patient villages could result in makeshift mental institutions.


Webb led New Zealand through the deinstitutionalisation movement in the 1990s and said the CDHB's housing solution "would arguably be turning back the clock 40 years".

"The risk is that we are going to end up with little mental health villages and that's the sort of thing that produces ghettos," she said.

When disadvantaged people were clustered together they became "objects of social abuse and discrimination" and the villages would be regarded as "low-life ghettos", Webb said.

Disaster mental health Associate Professor Sarb Johal said a major risk in creating temporary villages was that it became difficult to move residents on.

Temporary, purpose-built housing units created after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans remained in place for years following the disaster. Johal said that should be taken as a lesson for Christchurch.

"It becomes almost the norm, like a semi-permanent solution," he said.

The agencies involved must work on sustainable and permanent solutions while setting up the patient villages to ensure it is only a short-term option, he said.

Board members shared concerns about the potential for ghettos but said the villages would be a lesser evil in comparison to discharging vulnerable patients onto the streets.

CDHB member Andrew Dickerson said the board was "caught between a rock and a hard place".

"In a perfect world we wouldn't be looking at solutions like this, but the CDHB would be negligent not to respond to this issue," he said.

Board member David Morrell said: "We are aware that putting a whole lot of people together in this way is not helpful but it may be too late to avoid it."

CDHB chief executive David Meates agreed the emergency housing option would be "a drastic measure".

However, the CDHB was being hamstrung by an "unprecedented" demand on mental health services and an inability to find suitable housing for patients.

"We would not see this as the best solution for patients or the health system. It is not the right model of care, would be expensive and would take money away from other health services," he said.

"Short-term options are required now."

The temporary villages would have a clear end-date to prevent "ghetto" environments forming or agencies thinking the problem had been solved, he said.

The Press