Mental health wards clogged with the homeless

Last updated 05:00 28/05/2014

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An entire ward of mental health patients are living in a hospital to avoid homelessness, costing the Canterbury District Health Board at least $13,000 a night.

The CDHB is trying to deal with the "urgent dilemma" created by the city's social housing shortage.

At a CDHB meeting yesterday, specialist mental health services manager Toni Gutschlag said the housing shortage was causing "significant problems".

On any given night, up to 25 patients were staying in Hillmorton Hospital - when they did not need to be there - because of a lack of affordable housing options.

"That's a whole ward," Gutschlag said.

When the mental health wards run at full capacity, patients with less acute needs were shifted to have a "sleepover" in other wards, she said.

It costs about $500 a night per patient to stay in mental health units. However, the overall cost of the problem would be much higher than that, CDHB chief executive David Meates said.

On top of the 25 patients clogging up the hospital services, there were about 100 other mental health clients in the community living in unsafe accommodation or sleeping on the streets, he said.

The health board could never close its doors on these patients or knowingly discharge them to the streets, Meates told the board.

"There is not an alternative here, there is no other hospital to send or divert these patients to."

Many potential solutions had been discussed, including setting up temporary portacom villages on CDHB land to house the homeless, Meates said.

Any significant social housing options would take between 18 months to two years to set up and make a tangible difference, he told the board. The CDHB was working with social housing providers to solve the problem.

"One of the dilemmas we have is that the DHB is not a social housing provider. If we do housing, we will be diverting resources away from other components of the health system. We need the housing agencies to deliver," he said. "I suspect this will continue to be identified and highlighted as an ongoing issue until we have suitable stock."

CDHB member Anna Crighton said the situation was appalling.

"To have 24 patients, homeless and taking up beds in the system is bad for them and bad for us. This is a big problem and it's not going to go away," she said.

Demand for CDHB mental health services continues to grow at rates significantly higher than those experienced at other DHBs around the country, Gutschlag told the board.

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