I was just discharged from hospital on Wednesday after seven months of hospital admissions and residential mental health services. During the past seven months I have met a lot of people with mental illness and psychosocial disability. I noticed one issue common to almost everyone I met – housing. I was in a group last Monday and a new patient was there. I told him how I had just moved house and he asked if it was public housing. I said no and he asked if is was mental health housing. I responded that it was not and was I fact private rental. The man was vey surprised. Apparently people with schizophrenia do not live in private rental properties. I didn’t tell him that I was in private rental while the property I own is renovated! In my time in hospital I didn’t encounter anyone who said they owned property. Almost everyone was in public or supported housing. I felt I had a huge amount of privilege to own my own home. It helped put things in perspective. There was one man I met in residential services who lived in a hosing project for homeless men. He kept going home every day to check his room, worried that it had been broken into as most of the neighbours had an issue with drugs and alcohol.
In terms of my current private rental property, I applied for two properties and was successful in the first one. I may have been successful for both as the second one called my referees but I told them I had already accepted the first one. I am presumably a perfect tenant – secure job, property owner, no kids, no pets. But being a perfect tenant makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable as I know so many people who would struggle to secure a rental.
Housing is an area where privilege is clearly evident. It is also often a challenge for autistic people. Autistic people are often unemployed, underemployed or outside of the labour force, meaning real estate agents do not view us favourably. We often have pets or assistance animals which can lead to discrimination too. We may not have a history of renting and we may struggle to find referees. For autistic people accessing housing can add significantly to stress and anxiety. Even if we get a rental it can be stressful. We may worry about damaging the property or being evicted. In fact autistic people are often very good tenants but we can doubt ourselves.
Home ownership is something many autistic people – and others – are denied access too. Employment issues can make ownership unattainable and if we do manage to buy property it can be highly anxiety-provoking. I have struggled for years with anxiety about my property being damaged by flooding or fire. The anxiety involved has led to major mental illness episodes on two occasions, one of which lasted for over two years and both of which threatened my employment. So even if home ownership is seen as the pinnacle of housing options it can in fact be very stressful while for many it is simply impossible anyway.
Sharing houses is an option many people take. For autistic people this can be fraught, with bullying housemates or housemates engaging in behaviours which are inappropriate or disrespectful. A share house is usually decided by a short interview which may not be enough time for autistic people to gauge whether someone is suitable to live with. Share houses are generally cheaper than living alone but can be very stressful. When I was younger I lived in a series of share houses. My average tenancy was six months because that was how long it took for me to realise the situation was unsuitable – one housemate moved out with her boyfriend leaving me very lonely, the next was a very sexist man and the next were two brothers who were lovely but who never cleaned up or did their dishes.
I lived in public housing for five years in the early 2000s. The rent was very cheap but the flat I was in had major issues with damp and black mould and all my neighbours were alcoholics or drug addicts. I wanted to fit in and be social so I became an alcoholic in order to be accepted by my neighbours. I had a woman who stalked me and it was a very stressful time. It was a bit of a trap too given how cheap it was. I ended up getting a full-time job in another state to escape my public housing nightmare. Public housing can be very challenging, particularly living in large public housing developments.
Housing can be extremely fraught for autistic people and others. It is an issue that I don’t have a solution for and is related to deeper issues in society around poverty and ableism. I long for a world where housing is equitable and accessible. I know I am extremely privileged and am grateful for that. I wish I wasn’t the exception though.