The south-west's housing crisis and lack of mental health beds is leading to a life of crime for some people without a roof over their head.
Rental vacancy rates in Warrnambool and surrounds continue to remain historically low, with more than 2500 households accessing homelessness services in the south-west in the past year.
A Koroit man, who has lived out of his car for most of 2021, this week told the Warrnambool Magistrates Court that being incarcerated was better than being homeless.
The 38-year-old man said his mental health had been deteriorating since 2019 and he believed he "had to offend to get some help".
The man said he was working as a painter, was contacting the Salvation Army for help weekly and was involved in Brophy's Rough Sleepers Program.
But he was still living out of his car, stating it was "impossible" to find a rental in the south-west and there was a lack of mental health support.
The man pleaded guilty to charges, including dishonesty offences and breaching a good behaviour bond.
The court heard he attended a community centre in Port Fairy in February and intentionally smashed a window, causing $250 damage.
He then called 000, reported the incident and waited to be arrested.
The man suffered minor cuts to his hand and was conveyed to Koroit police station where he told police he was trying to get assistance for his housing situation.
On Monday the man told the court he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager and also suffered from alcohol dependency.
He said he had lived out of his car for most of this year and was refused help from South West Healthcare's mental health unit.
"I was literally trying to be admitted and they wouldn't put me in," he said.
The man said his offending over the last two years was a cry for help.
"It's not the right thing to do I know but it's all relating back to my mental health," he said.
The man said he was using all the community supports available to him, including Anglicare community meals and free coffees at the Archie Graham Centre, but his situation was still "really bad".
"It's really tough," he said.
Magistrate Jon Klesdadt said he was sympathetic to the man's situation but poor mental health was "not an excuse for this kind of behaviour".
"I understand that your financial position is pretty dire and I accept that you have no secure housing but it's difficult to see how the court can impose any other penalty but a fine for this offending," the magistrate said.
He said the man had previously been convicted of similar offending and sentenced to short stints in jail or a good behaviour bond, which he had breached.
"Unfortunately for you if you are unable to curb your impulses you may very well find yourself going back to jail," Mr Klesdadt said.
He said unlike many people in a similar situation, the man had a job and was a qualified tradesman.
"That is your ticket out of these situations," he said.
The man was fined $1000.
The offending occurred just one month after the man broke into Warrnambool and District Food Share, left an apology note detailing what food he had eaten and then handed himself into police.
Brophy Family and Youth Services' housing support team leader Leah McDonald said it was not uncommon for people to believe that being remanded in custody was safer than being on the streets.
"People have been open in their knowledge that choices are limited and that they know they could 'throw a brick through a window' to get a roof over their head for a night," she told The Standard.
"(In custody) they will have routine meals, warmth and will not face the possibility of being 'moved on' from where they are sleeping or sheltering."
Ms McDonald said Brophy's Rough Sleeping Program comprised of a multi-disciplinary team supported by WRAD, Gunditjmara and South West Mental Health services.
"The program aim is to complete assertive outreach to those sleeping rough in the Warrnambool community," she said.
"The program has so far supported 93 rough sleepers to access emergency accommodation and various short and long-term intensive supports and housing options over the last two and a half years."
In custody they have routine meals, warmth and won't face the possibility of being moved on.Leah McDonald
The Rough Sleeping Program encourages and supports rough sleepers to engage with crucial services, including mental health, family violence, cultural, drug and alcohol services, and adult homeless entry points.
Ms McDonald said support numbers were consistent with last year although people were requiring longer support periods than usual due to the region's housing crisis.
In 2019, when the same Koroit man was refused entry to the South West Healthcare (SWH) mental health acute inpatient unit, he stole from two supermarkets in order to spend a night in the police station cells.
He told police he'd been alcohol dependent for 10 years and that he wanted to be locked up as he believed it was the only way he would stop drinking.
The man's situation is not an isolated one with the south-west having the highest incidences of patients with mental health conditions in the state.
In an unrelated incident in 2019, a 21-year-old Warrnambool man was turned away from the same facility in the hours before he stabbed his brother.
The County Court of Victoria found the man was severely mentally ill when he stabbed the victim in the chest with a 30cm-long blade.
Judge Gerard Mullaly last year described the case as another tragic collision between mental illness and the justice system.
The man had been bailed for other offences and ordered to go for a mental health assessment at the time.
He was in the grip of either a schizophreniform or drug-induced psychosis, but the hospital told him to come back the following day.
SWH mental health services executive director Richard Campion said SWH provided a number of entry points to ensure services were available 24/7.
"We recognise that when a person needs to access and use our mental health services it can be a time of high stress and emotion for them and those around them," he said.
"We seek to provide a timely, sensitive and appropriate response to people at this time.
"We recognise that many of our consumers experience difficulties around housing, finances, employment, court, relationships and other issues, and we recognise the impact that these issues can have upon an individual's mental health and recovery."
Mr Campion said SWH clinicians offered a recovery-based approach to the support they provided and "where appropriate, support consumers to access other specialist service providers that can further assist with issues such as these".
He said when inpatient care and treatment was required, patients accessed SWH's acute inpatient unit in Warrnambool.
"Admissions to our bed-based acute mental health unit are often voluntary and as such, patients are able to leave this unit without restrictions," Mr Campion said.
He said the unit would receive an additional five acute mental beds for the region's most vulnerable next year, up from 15.
"This will provide a huge benefit to south-west Victorians and provide more access to care closer to home," he said.
"The number of beds will increase from 15 to 20 and at the forefront of the planning process for this upgrade will be the need to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for our consumers who will use the facility in the years to come."
If you need support, contact Lifeline 13 11 14.
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