Residents break silence on Oaks Estate
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Residents break silence on Oaks Estate

At 2am on a summer's night in Oaks Estate, the Griffin family wakes to screams.

A man is dragging a woman by her hair up a footpath outside their house.

Concerned community members say Oaks Estate has been ignored and neglected by the ACT government and residents now are fed up.

Concerned community members say Oaks Estate has been ignored and neglected by the ACT government and residents now are fed up.

"Give me my f**kin' money, give me my f**kin' money," he yells.

The woman is crying for help. Hugh Griffin calls the police.

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But as the police arrive, the pair involved in the vicious domestic dispute flee.

Those that have lived in Oaks Estate for any length of time have been through the good times and the bad.

As a community, they seldom complain and are proud of where they live.

This is despite a kind of grudging acceptance that they're rarely paid much attention by the ACT government or its bureaucrats.

To an extent they've become used to it. Some residents would say it goes with the territory.

Historical experience has hardened them to this reality.

But recent times have many residents on edge.

Generally Canberra residents concern themselves with development applications, the loss of community green spaces, the odd traffic snarl or long grass, but Oaks Estate seems to be operating in a different realm lately.

Violence, intimidation and public drug use has literally forced numerous residents to leave the suburb.

A tin-eared bureaucracy, decades of "institutional neglect" and a climate of fear where families will no longer let their children play unsupervised has come together to turn the usual sense of disappointment with government services into a rage bordering on volcanic.

When long-term Oaks Estate resident Karen Williams spoke out last week, it was a departure from the usual script.

She talked about how the recently heritage-listed Robertsons' House was being used as a shooting gallery by junkies.

But she added the issue was part of a larger social problem.

"The government is making changes that are affecting Oaks Estate," she said.

"Those needles are a symptom of it and an indicator that something is not right in the management of Oaks Estate."

There is a parole program called ThroughCare that has been running out of one of the public unit blocks.

One of the issues is that high needs housing tenants were being isolated in a suburb far from support services and with no public transport.

Fourteen years ago an Oaks Estate Planning Study listed 12 recommendations for the suburb.

The first was to reduce the proportion of public housing to match the Canberra average.

It also recommended community management of some or all units, and improved access to community development and support services.

The second and third recommendations were to review tenancy allocation policies for public housing to take into account sustainable communities and transport issues.

An ACT government spokesman said many Oaks Estate properties had been head leased to St Vincent de Paul to provide accommodation and community based support for people with mental illness.

He said Housing and Community Services and St Vincent de Paul conducted research with 19 participants on the community regeneration outcomes achieved through the place-based supports provided by St Vincent de Paul on site at Oaks Estate last December.

"The key findings of the research indicate participants have experienced increased feelings of personal and community safety," he said.

This contrasts with comments made by Ms Williams one week ago.

"In the past few months, it has become much more intense and we are now wearing it," she said.

"We know it comes and goes but this is much more intensified."

While there are 78 public housing dwellings in Oaks Estate – only 144 dwellings were listed in the 2011 Census – residents are at pains to emphasise they have nothing against public housing.

But their issue is an issue with the social problems borne from running programs out of unit blocks.

Oaks Estate Progress Association president Michael Starling said a lot of residents won't let their children walk along the river corridor anymore.

"We should be able to let our children out into the community without fear," he said.

"I think having a mix of public housing is not the issue. It is the scale and concentration coupled with the particular demographic they are housing there."

He said life had been hell for public housing tenants as well.

Mr Starling said he had friends who had left the suburb due to sustained verbal and physical abuse.

He said one was left with broken bones after he was bashed.

"They've taken complaints to ACT Housing and been given no adequate redress at all," he said. "So they they've left because of sustained verbal and physical intimidation by neighbours."

Crime in Oaks Estate has tripled across a number of categories in the past year.

From 2013 to 2014 burglaries, assaults and thefts went from 12 to 37.

For a community of about 250 people, the increase has been sharply felt.

Another Oaks Estate resident, who asked not to be named, said he called police regularly

He listed fights, drug cultivation, speeding drivers and motorcyclists – without helmets – along with illegal fireworks and dumping as some of the issues he had experienced.

But the violence and drugs are only part of the problem.

Basic services, such as public transport, pedestrian safety for children and hazard reduction burns were luxuries residents Oaks Estate often went without despite repeated recommendations and commitments from government.

For years, residents pleaded to get a bus route extended from Fyshwick to Oaks Estate to no avail.

Mr Starling said residents could not even force the ACT government to install a safe pedestrian pathway to the park.

Recommendations to improve walkways and footpaths were made by Urban Services more than a decade ago.

Little has been done.

Meanwhile discussions on the Oaks Estate master plan are well under way.

The plans reveal several blocks of medium density units, this for a suburb already in a league of its own in terms of single occupant dwellings.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the government was committed to improving long-term planning for Oaks Estate.

"The master plan proposes more sustainable, mixed use development in the village and an emphasis on renewing the public housing in the area," he said.

"We hope the Oaks Estate community will give feedback on the plan and help advise the government on the best way to improving the living conditions for residents."

Molonglo MLA Steve Doszpot said he was astounded at the continued neglect of the suburb, after a recent visit.

He said Oaks Estate and Charnwood were identified in the 2006 Census as the most neglected suburbs in Canberra.

"You've got a community that feels isolated from this government," Mr Doszpot.

"It feels isolated in terms of the services that are provided to them.

"It has a fair percentage of disadvantaged community yet the services provided to it, to back up any community, is even less in this community."

He said he couldn't imagine residents of any other Canberra suburb having to put up with similar issues and intends to raise a motion in the ACT Legislative Assembly about issues in the suburb.

"I think Oaks Estate stands alone in this neglect and it's quite disgusting," Mr Doszpot said.

Mark Sawa is a reporter for The Chronicle.

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