Sometimes it’s hard to pay attention to the news. The litany of bad stories never seems to end and it’s easy to let compassion fatigue set in. Or sometimes it’s just more convenient to watch MasterChef. But other times, there’s a story that is so compelling it jumps out at you and sucks you in, forcing you to mix your metaphors in the process.

Just like late on Friday night when I came home and jumped online and the headline of the lead story on the SMH website caught my attention: ‘Sydney’s ‘Dickensian’ scandal: six dead’. Clicking through, I found that the article was about a boarding house in Marrickville where six people had died in shocking conditions between 2009 and 2010. The state coroner had told reporters that her investigations had uncovered a culture of neglect in the home, resulting in widespread malnourishment, oversedation and inadequate medical care.

“I could not avoid seeing emerging a Dickensian picture of oversedated people reduced to a state of inertia or lethargy in order to keep them quiet,” she said.

I was riveted and appalled.

The thing is, the hostel in question was located just across the road from my primary school and its residents – most of whom were mentally challenged or had some other type of special need – were our neighbours. We would nod and say g’day to them when we bumped into them on the way to school or at the local shops. We even knew some of them personally through church. There were a couple of middle aged men in who, at different times, popped in frequently, stopping by for a cup of coffee, a conversation and the chance to interrupt one of my Dad’s sermons. After they’d had enough, they would usually head off to one of the other local churches for more of the same.

Our family was close to one man in particular. Known to us as Jack*, although some people called ihm Warren*, he was quite a character. Most nights, he would come up the hill to our place while we were eating dinner to share some dessert. Arriving at the door, he would ring the bell continuously until someone answered and then announce: “I’d like some ice cream, I would”. Most of his teeth were missing and it could be rather difficult to understand him at times, but we chatted as best we could and over time, we all got to know him quite well. Jack loved gardening and flowers were one of his favourite topics of conversations. He also spoke fondly about one of his grandmothers. After a while, it felt like he was part of the family and Dad became particularly close to him.

Over time, Jack’s health deteriorated. His smoker’s cough got hoarser and hoarser; his stooped shoulders drooped even lower and he developed quite a bad limp. When the boarding house closed down in 2010, he moved to a similar place in a different suburb and welost touch with him Looking back, it’s confronting to think that he was living in such poor circumstances. We knew it wasn’t perfect and the article suggested that conditions in the hostel deteriorated rapidly in the last few years before it was shut down, but that doesn’t diminish the tragic events that did occur and the poor conditions that were permitted. It feels like we let our friend down.

The sad thing is that throughout the inner west, particularly in places like Marrickville, Enmore, Leichhardt, Summer Hill and Glebe, there are dozens of boarding houses where people with mental illness, low incomes and myriad other special needs are forced to live. Some of the institutions may provide adequate services and accommodation but my gut feeling – along with personal experience – tells me that plenty of them are just as bad as Jack’s old home.

Thankfully, the NSW Disability Services Minister, Andrew Constance, has pledged to act on the coroner’s findings. According to another article, he promised to produce draft amendments to the relevant legislation by the end of June. I certainly hope he keeps his word. And in the meantime, if you’re interested in following up on this issue or have any ideas about how to go about that, I’d be more than happy to hear from you. Just send me an email (tim.k.dixon[at]gmail.com).

* Names changed.

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