The agency charged with advocating for homeless people and social housing needs is outraged at the “breathtaking” corruption scandal unfolding at the Department of Communities.
Last week it emerged that while Western Australia was in the thick of a social housing crisis, with more than 9000 people homeless each night and more than 14,000 on the social housing wait list, up to $25 million in public funds may have been stolen by one of the department’s bosses.
Prosecutors alleged in court on Friday morning there was evidence to suggest a false invoicing scheme allegedly orchestrated by Housing Authority bureaucrat Paul Ronald Whyte, 56, could have dated back as far as 2008 and seen $20-25 million fleeced from the public purse, on top of the $2.5 million initially alleged.
Mr Whyte and his co-accused, Jacob Daniel Anthonisz, 43, who does not work in the public sector, faced Perth Magistrates Court on Friday after being arrested on Thursday as WA Police and the Corruption and Crime Commission pounced to “prevent further loss of any government funds”.
Shelter WA chief executive Michelle Mackenzie said the alleged corruption occurred while services for people who experience homelessness or who are in housing stress were stretched to breaking point.
“This is a complete betrayal of the people of Western Australia and the community services who work tirelessly, with limited resources, to deliver positive outcomes for people in housing need,” she said.
“The cost of corruption has impacted on individuals and families. Whilst the focus is rightly on the lack of internal controls within the department, we also need to know the impact of this corruption on people in housing stress and on those who experience homelessness.”
Ms Mackenzie said the WA housing system was broken and needed immediate investment. People waited on average 2.5 years to be housed by the state.
The real victims of the alleged crime were families, children and young people struggling to pay their bills, experiencing homelessness and falling between the cracks.
“Twenty five million dollars can go a long way to alleviate this crisis,” she said.
“Over 70 new homes could have been built, or support provided for 2100 people to rent a home, or increased funding provided for specialist homelessness services to help keep people off the street.”
The Western Australian Council of Social Service said the money could have made immeasurable differences to people living in poverty.
“The sector is in shock regarding the alleged fraud reported to be in the millions,” WACOSS chief executive Louise Giolitto said.
“This money could have made a significant impact and improved the wellbeing of so many lives especially for people without a place to call home.”
People were waiting two and a half years for public and community housing, and a growing number of families were doing it tough.
The sector was disappointed and greatly concerned to hear claims of corruption within the Housing Authority, but WACOSS welcomed the announcement by Premier Mark McGowan of the independent review by the Public Sector Commission.
“The WA Government must take steps to guarantee that this never can happen again,” she said.
It was important that the community could trust the public institutions that are responsible for the wellbeing of those doing it hardest.
“While events like these can erode public trust, we do not believe that these allegations reflect on the public sector as a whole, which is made up of many workers dedicated to the WA community,” Ms Giolitto said.
South West Australian Homeless People founder Jonathan Shapiera, who himself ended up homeless after losing a $100,000 job and now advocates for people experiencing hardship, said the alleged corruption scandal effectively robbed vulnerable and disadvantaged people.
“That money could have been used to get thousands of homeless people off the streets and disadvantaged people in to houses,” he said.
“It’s like robbing those people.
“These people have been abandoned by the government and after this, the McGowan Government really needs to start rolling heads.
“The government needs a kick in the ass, it’s clearly not handling services the way it should and there are people seriously struggling out there. That money could have supported services to help WA’ most vulnerable and disadvantaged but now they have been robbed of that.”
Ms Mackenzie said Shelter WA expected the highest standards of integrity from government.
“Where are the internal checks and balances that ensure funding, desperately needed to support the most vulnerable people in our society, gets to those most in need?” Ms Mackenzie said.
“Shelter WA looks forward to the investigation by the Corruption and Crime Commission and the independent review of the Housing Authority.”
This article first appeared in watoday.com.au