How Denise Morgan escaped Melbourne’s house of horrors

By Jewel Topsfield and Royce Millar

Former Hambleton House resident Denise Morgan.Credit:Jason South

COVID-19 was Juan Azaldegui’s passport out of squalor. In August last year he was evacuated from Hambleton House, a home in Albert Park for people with disabilities and mental illness. Fifteen of the 28 residents had tested positive and some were found wandering the nearby streets of one of Melbourne’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.

Azaldegui misses nothing about Hambleton House. Not the “lumps of poo” on the bathroom floor, nor the showers that “reeked of piss”, with hot water that ran cold so quickly, nor the canned baked bean and spaghetti dinners.

He especially doesn’t miss the bed bugs in his radiator-heated bedroom. “The place was infested with them,” he says. “Everyone was scratching when they went outside for a cigarette.”

Denise Morgan was one of the residents evacuated from Hambleton House last year.Credit:Chris Hopkins

When they investigated the facility after the COVID outbreak, state health department officials found uncapped needles, mattresses stained with bodily fluids, broken windows and spoilt food. One official described the conditions as “horrendous”.

An embarrassed state government moved quickly to close the facility, relocate residents and revoke the registration of the proprietor, Shani Abeywickrema. This was the “strongest sanction possible” at the time, according to a department spokesman.

“The former proprietor of Hambleton House did not meet the standards required of an SRS [supported residential service] operator,” he says. “The actions taken … were necessary to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of residents.”

But in a confidential report, seen by The Age, disability watchdog the Office of the Public Advocate, slams the department for not taking effective action until the outbreak, saying it had raised “serious concerns” about Hambleton House for three years.

The Age has confirmed that the department inspected Hambleton House seven times in the year to December 2019 and found the proprietor largely compliant “except for low-level issues for which guidance on compliance was provided”.

Hambleton House has now been closed.Credit:Jason South

COVID had opened the door on a horror story, raising uncomfortable questions about how we care for some of our most marginalised citizens, and not just at the Albert Park home.

Hambleton House was a supported residential service – state-regulated but privately owned facilities that house about 4000 Victorians with disability and mental illness. Standards vary greatly at the homes, but the government has long been warned of abuse, neglect and even violence in the sector. These facilities traditionally house people, usually on pensions, who no one else will take.

Now there is a new game in town, which makes them more lucrative: the National Disability Insurance Scheme. With annual funding packages that can be worth more than $100,000, the scheme has turned some of our most vulnerable citizens into valuable commodities.

Watchdog agencies, health professionals and families are concerned that the NDIS has led to the potential for conflicts of interest, rorting and exploitation in supported residential services.

Also of concern to them is that the NDIS has spawned “pop-up” accommodation in outer Melbourne, with residents moved from supported residential services to private properties leased by a disability support provider where the same level of oversight and tenancy safeguards do not apply. Some of these are run by people with strong connections to those who ran Hambleton House.

Albert Park resident Donnalea Duffy lives two blocks away from the now closed facility. When the COVID outbreak hit and residents emerged disoriented and dishevelled into the street, including an elderly woman locals had never seen before, Duffy was shocked.

“In the community we probably had trust that a place like Hambleton House would be well regulated,” she says. “In a country like ours, how could it possibly not be?”

Denise Morgan now lives in a nice place in inner Melbourne but was approached by the former owners of Hambleton House to come to their new residence. Credit:Jason South

Hambleton: house of horrors

Denise Morgan is a chirpy woman with wispy grey hair and a face full of character. She lived in a tiny windowless room at Hambleton House for 10 years.

“The bugs were crawling up the walls,” says the 77-year-old, who has an intellectual disability. The bathroom down the corridor was freezing and filthy. It was an awful place to live, but Morgan says the proprietor warned her: “If you go away from here, you won’t get looked after.”

Unbeknown to Morgan, a group of volunteers had been doggedly raising the alarm with the state government. Community Visitors are authorised by the state to inspect accommodation facilities for people with disability or mental illness.

They did a spot check at Hambleton House in 2019 and reported to government. Not for the first time, they were deeply disturbed by what they found: squalid rooms, filthy mattresses stained with bodily fluids, overflowing bins, rotting food and infestations of bed bugs and cockroaches.

A bed bug-ridden mattress found at Hambleton House in Albert Park when it was closed last year.

One elderly resident told the Community Visitors she frequently wore her clothes to bed because she was cold.

Then, in January 2020, they warned that residents’ personal support plans were almost all out of date, incomplete and often did not list medication or dietary needs. One resident’s plan simply read: “[The woman] is a diabetic. Enjoys all her meals. Loves drinking cola.”

Shani and Jai Abeywickrema.Credit:Facebook

For years before it closed, Hambleton House was run by Jai and Shani Abeywickrema. The Age has repeatedly tried to contact them, including via their lawyer. Jai Abeywickrema responded, saying his his family was not able to comment “at the moment”.

Geoff Govender was a director of the company behind Hambleton House until July 2020, just before the COVID-19 outbreak there, but he was not involved in the day-to-day running of the facility. He says he had no concerns about living conditions at Hambleton House before the pandemic, pointing out that the Health Department and Community Visitors made regular checks.

A government source speaking to The Age on the condition of anonymity says conditions at Hambleton House deteriorated badly between February and August last year when COVID restrictions prevented physical inspections.

But behind the scenes in government some were, and still are, seething about department inaction given that Community Visitors had raised serious concerns for three years.

“The regulator found Hambleton House compliant … time and time again despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” the Victorian Public Advocate, Dr Colleen Pearce, fumed in the confidential report to government last November.

The report calls for “systemic change” to protect residents in supported residential services, noting that “Hambleton House is not an anomaly”.

The new poorhouses

Little is publicly known about the 117 supported residential services across Victoria. Forty per cent are “pension-plus” facilities, where residents can pay more than $1000 a week for their room, meals, care and support. These generally offer a higher quality of care.

Of greater concern to advocates are the pension-level facilities – an option of last resort for people with a disability, mental illness or the homeless – where residents are charged up to 95 per cent of their disability or aged pension in fees.

The supported residential sector was established in the 1970s to house and care for frail, elderly people. When Victoria closed large psychiatric hospitals such as Willsmere, Larundel, Mont Park and Beechworth in the 1990s as part of deinstitutionalisation, supported residential services became the default option for people with mental illness and nowhere else to go.

“Pension-only supported residential services could be described as a 21st-century poorhouse,” says Liz Dearn, a social researcher who is writing a PhD on the sector. “They are an example of the incompleteness of deinstitutionalisation.”

For years pension-level supported residential services have warned they are struggling to stay afloat, with pensions not keeping pace with escalating rents and other costs including compliance.

The number of facilities has shrunk from 315 in 1992 to 117. Some proprietors say they are losing residents to new NDIS businesses that provide their own housing and are not inspected by Community Visitors.

Joanne Tomada, who is the director of Reservoir Lodge in Melbourne’s north, has worked in supported residential services for 40 years.

“I’m really dedicated to this,” she says.“I’m not a cowboy and I am not money hungry. I take lots of people off the street who don’t have any money and house them for as long as I can.”

Tomada says most of the people who live at Reservoir Lodge have been there more than 10 years. “We are their family because most of them don’t have families.”

Community Visitors often have unrealistic expectations, Tomada says, and don’t understand the challenges of housing people who have recently been released from jail, or were sleeping under a bridge or have severe mental illness.

“Community Visitors are more about carrying on about a banana skin on the ground or a cigarette butt, but not the real issues about what are going on.”

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System acknowledged reports that proprietors were “generally caring, committed and hard-working”.

But it noted quality and safety concerns, particularly given the high rates of mental illness among residents, and it called for the Victorian government to reform the sector.

Denise Morgan, now living in a non-profit aged care home in inner Melbourne, is glad to have seen the last of Hambleton House. “I was really happy to get away from that bloody place.”

Gone but not forgotten

But while the government closed Hambleton House, it was not the last Morgan and other former residents would see of the Abeywickremas.

Morgan says Jai and Shani Abeywickrema’s daughter approached her where she was living and encouraged her to move back with them.

“I don’t like her, I wish she never come there at all,” Morgan says. “The social service people, he was real nice to me, he said, ‘Don’t take any notice of her, Denise.’ ”

Juan Azaldegui had escaped the bed bugs of Hambleton House and was happily rehoused at a St Vincent’s aged care home in Kew. He says he was approached in the street and by telephone by the Abeywickremas.

Former Hambleton House resident Juan Azaldegui.Credit:Darrian Traynor

“They wanted me to move to another place they had in the south-east suburbs,” he says. That place was Crosbie Lodge, a former residential support service in Bentleigh, which has since been voluntarily closed.

Corporate searches show that, at the time, Crosbie Lodge was owned by former shareholders of the company behind Hambleton House, including Geoff Govender.

He has owned or part-owned eight supported residential services and still has an interest in three – at Aspendale, Mornington and Hastings.

The Abeywickremas were not owners at Crosbie Lodge, but asked if they had a role there after Hambleton House, Govender says: “Maybe they assisted to do some work. Maybe there were a few shifts given.”

While agencies including St Vincent’s and other housing organisations intervened to ensure neither Azaldegui nor Morgan relocated, at least two other Hambleton House residents did make the move to Crosbie Lodge.

The Age does not suggest any illegality in any approaches made by the Abeywickremas to former Hambleton House residents.

Neither Azaldegui nor Morgan had NDIS funding packages but other former Hambleton House residents did.

For a long time, Pearce says, people living in supported residential services have been the most invisible citizens in our society.

“But with the advent of the NDIS, many of them have packages, which makes them highly sought after by service providers.”

The lure of the NDIS

The rollout of the $22 billion NDIS has revolutionised how Australia supports those with disabilities.

A core principle of the NDIS is that people who qualify for funding packages have “choice and control” over how best to use their money and who provides the services.

However, some people don’t have the capacity to exercise choice.

In some cases, businesses that provide support services also own the accommodation in which NDIS participants live.

While this dual role is lawful, as early as 2014 one of the architects of the NDIS, Bruce Bonyhady, said in most cases choice and control was best supported by the separation of the provision of housing from the provision of support services.

The Public Advocate and Mental Health Legal Centre have both raised concerns with federal and state authorities that some supported residential services proprietors may be “double dipping” – using residents’ NDIS funding to pay for services already covered by room and board fees.

The Age does not suggest this occurred at Hambleton House or at the facilities in which Govender has an interest.

Since 2015 the Mental Health Legal Centre has partnered with nurses from Bolton Clarke Homeless Persons Program in making visits to people in supported residential services.

“It is clear that many of these clients are extremely vulnerable, some are being coerced and threatened and many are living in conditions that are unacceptable to us,” Mental Health Legal Centre chief executive Charlotte Jones says in a letter to the state Health Department and seen by The Age. Jones says she has been frustrated by a lack of action by both state and federal agencies.

The state government says it is investigating, noting it will refer specific concerns about NDIS providers to the federal NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

But disability advocates say the commission is under-resourced, rarely initiates its own investigations, and prioritises compliance over enforcement.

In the year to June 30, the commission received more than 7200 complaints but issued just 19 fines, revoked three registrations and banned 22 organisations or individuals from providing NDIS services.

Victorian Public Advocate Colleen Pearce.Credit:Jason South

The commission told The Age the management of conflicts of interest is a “compliance and enforcement priority” this financial year. It says it takes all complaints seriously.

In February, Public Advocate Pearce raised multiple concerns with the commission.

“There is a clear conflict of interest with proprietors providing accommodation and support through a residential agreement and the same support services via an NDIS plan,” she says in her letter. “Can you advise what processes are in place to avoid such conflicts?”

She has not received a formal response.

Where’s Steve? Disappearances and the pop-ups

After Steve Burrows* was evacuated from Hambleton House, his family could not locate him.

For some weeks late last year he lived in a non-profit facility in South Melbourne where, his parents and staff say, he seemed happy. But he was soon being approached on the street by people he said he knew from Hambleton House and encouraged to move elsewhere. And he did move.

Burrows has schizophrenia, a low IQ and, his parents say, a tendency to be too trustful. “Give Steve his bottle of bourbon and some smokes and he is your man,” his father Gary* says. “He will do what you want.”

Kate Rice is a manager at Wintringham – Australia’s largest aged care provider for the homeless – which was commissioned by the state government to rehouse Hambleton House residents after the COVID outbreak. “We reported him to the police as missing because we didn’t know where he was,” she says.

Burrows had signed up to a new NDIS support provider called Cosmos Community Services, part of a group of provider companies in Melbourne’s west linked to disability entrepreneur Kwawaja Moeen Haroon. A joint director and shareholder with Haroon in the company behind Cosmos is Thavisha Abeywickrema, a family member of the former Hambleton House proprietors.

Khawaja Haroon, a disability service provider in Melbourne’s west. Credit:LinkedIn

Police found Burrows at a private property in outer-western Melbourne, one of multiple properties linked to his new NDIS support providers, and part of a new “pop-up” sector that emerged as a result of the NDIS rollout.

He was soon moved again to yet another private home connected to the same NDIS support providers.

Burrows’ mother Stephanie says she is concerned about her son’s situation. In their now infrequent telephone catch-ups, she says, he always seems constrained. “The conversations are very short.”

Justin Smith*, another former Hambleton House resident, was also reported missing after he left his inner-city lodgings. He had moved to Crosbie Lodge in Bentleigh, then to a flat in Dandenong and is now, Rice thinks, in a rented property somewhere in the outer west.

Crosbie Lodge.

As The Age revealed last week, so lucrative these days are the likes of Burrows and Smith that ugly turf wars are being fought over them by rival disability businesses.

In a written statement, Haroon says Cosmos “has no dealings” with Hambleton House. He says he has been involved in charitable work since 2013 and started his NDIS service companies “with the goal of providing assistance to vulnerable persons in the community” and those “who would otherwise be left on the street or are leaving care where they are abused”.

Essential accommodation of last resort?

When Burrows lived at Hambleton House he shared a cramped bedroom with a dirty curtain separating the beds. “It looked like a rat wouldn’t live there,” says his father. “But at least he wasn’t on the streets.”

It’s a common refrain from governments, social workers and even families. Some, like Pearce, say supported residential services are an essential accommodation option of last resort for people on the margins of society.

She is calling for new powers to investigate the “pop-up” sector, stronger regulation of supported residential services, more stringent registration requirements for NDIS service providers, and for better information sharing between federal and state agencies and safeguard bodies.

Inside Hambleton House.Credit:Jason South

Last month the state government announced greater protection for supported residential service residents through a new social services regulator with more muscle.

“New, stronger powers will mean the independent regulator has more tools to take action when providers are not doing the right thing by their clients,” says a state government spokesman.

But some believe tougher regulation is not enough, and that the whole model is a flawed relic of the past that should be done away with.

Former Melburnian of the year Bryan Lipmann, the chief executive of Wintringham, believes housing and care for society’s most vulnerable should not be in private hands.

“Operators are finding ways to secure money through the NDIS and we can’t demonstrate whether that money is going to the benefit of the clients or not,” he says, speaking generally. “They have almost no ability to complain.”

Social researcher Liz Dearn says continued reliance on supported residential services is evidence of system-wide failure. They provide an alternative to homelessness, she says, but are inconsistent with contemporary human rights.

Dearn’s preliminary research has found that many people living in the sector would like to move out but are unable to because of a lack of affordable housing.

Residents’ tribute to Hambleton House.Credit:Penny Stephens

“Accommodating people in supported residential services is cheaper than providing more appropriate models of care.”

In 2019-20 there were 242 reported cases of abuse, neglect and violence at supported residential services, up from 161 the year before.

“These places are extremely unsafe for adults with an intellectual disability,” says Sarah Forbes, advocacy manager with the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability. She rejects the common claim that any roof is better than no roof.

“The alternative is affordable housing for each person who needs it, with the NDIS providing individualised support to people in their homes. It’s not as complex as it’s made out to be.”

Gary Burrows says his son and other vulnerable people like him deserve better. “They shut down asylums because the treatment was so harsh. But what they’re getting in these private places is not much better.”

* Not their real names

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