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Where overcrowding leaves children sick and depressed

Hepburn Advocate
Thursday, December 06, 2012
By Melissa Fyfe

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FILSAN Warsame and Shamsun Ali have seven children. Each night they put them to bed, and each night they do their best. But space is scarce in their two-bedroom flat. Some of the children sleep with their parents, others on the floor or couch in the lounge room.

Living like this, said Somali-Australian Shamsun Ali, children easily picked up infections. He points to the scalp of his four-year-old son Abu Baker, where a scabby white sore has grown to the size of a five-cent coin. "It's a fungus," he said.

In the waking hours, the children - from baby Abrahim to 10-year-old daughter Yasmin Ali - compete for space to play and do homework. There's a wariness of the outside: the neighbours, night-shift taxi drivers, call the police if the kids play loudly. ''Most of my daughters don't have enough vitamin D, it's hard to be outside absorbing the sun,'' Mr Ali said.

One of his daughters has been diagnosed with clinical rickets, a softening of the bones due to a lack of vitamin D or sunshine.

Mr Ali, a refugee, and his wife Filsan, are among at least 50 Somali families in West Heidelberg facing acute overcrowding. Community leaders say about half of the area's Somali families are living in sub-standard conditions, as their culture, which prizes large families (the average is four or five children, but many have seven or eight), meets the limits of public housing stock.

A Human Services Department report into public housing in the West Heidelberg area, recently released under freedom of information, found an oversupply of two-bedroom houses, but the wait for a four-bedroom house was more than 15 years in 2009. West Heidelberg housing lawyers now advise clients the delay is at least 20 years.

Community leaders, social workers and housing lawyers say the overcrowding fosters mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, family tension and a loss of adult privacy.

Kids are bedding down for the night in bathrooms and kitchens and younger siblings are sharing rooms with teenagers. It's also a major homework disruption.

In West Heidelberg, where 70 per cent of dwellings are public housing, lawyer Megan King said she regularly saw families dealing with severe overcrowding. ''These families are desperate for any help they can get to move to a larger property,'' said Ms King, a housing
rights lawyer at the West Heidelberg Community Legal Service.

''These families usually have children who are suffering from health problems associated with overcrowding, such as skin conditions like eczema. Frustratingly, there's nothing the legal service can do for these families.''

The lack of living space and privacy bred anxiety, said Marissa De Nardo, a medical social worker at the Banyule community health medical clinic. ''It causes family tension and conflict.''

Community leaders such as Jabiri Ali, vice-president of the West Heidelberg-based Somali Australia Council of Victoria, said it was unlikely the second generation of Somali-Australians would have such big families.

''It's a matter of educating people to understand that the more children you have in this country is not as useful as having them in our countries,'' he said. ''The parents will always have more children so that if some go astray, others will look after them. It's a security thing.''

Community workers also point out that Melbourne's big Somali families are often looking after the children of relatives, who may have died.

Community worker Abdi Siad said Somali-Australians in West Heidelberg, particularly single mothers, were not keen to move away from the area and its support networks. ''We are extended family and we are somehow related and we want to help each other,'' he said.

The Baillieu government said it had a plan to address the overcrowding, and had already allocated a new five-bedroom home to a family of 10 as part of its Olympia Housing Initiative. Under this project, 600 ageing and unsuitable public housing properties will be replaced with homes that the government says will better suit the demographic of the West Heidelberg, Heidelberg Heights and Bellfield areas.

Housing Minister Wendy Lovell said the new five-bedroom home was one of six larger properties to be delivered next year. The Olympia initiative will also give families the option of moving to more suitable accommodation, so in some cases singles or couples could choose to relocate from a larger home, making that property available for bigger families.

The poor housing conditions in West Heidelberg don't stop at overcrowding. The legal service has seen clients who live in blocks of flats around which they consider it dangerous for their children to play.

Abdi Siad said many children had asthma from mould-ridden homes, and the overcrowding meant contagious diseases were spread easily. Worryingly, they seemed to be a rising incidence in autism in the community.

Of the overcrowding, he said: ''You put the children in a small cage and they have energy to consume. You have to say all the time 'sit down, sit down', and they become aggressive.

''When the families come in here [to the office of the Somali Australia Council of Victoria] you can feel how stressed the mum is, how stressed their lives are. You can see how the children look, how depressed they are, the issues they have at home. You can see they don't have any privacy, there is no space for them to study. They live in two bedrooms - where are they supposed to study?''

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