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We Can't Arrest Our Way Out Of The Homelessness Crisis

Victoria can do better than a knee-jerk, short-sighted response.

20/01/2017 3:51 PM AEDT | Updated 21/01/2017 4:52 PM AEDT
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The City of Melbourne is considering a new bylaw to make it an offence to sleep on the city’s streets.

Once again, Melburnians sleeping rough are in the news. Amongst the cries for action in response to confronting levels of visible homelessness is a call for tougher law enforcement and stronger move-on powers.

On Friday morning, we heard that the City of Melbourne is considering a new bylaw to make it an offence to sleep on the city's streets after Victoria's Police Commissioner indicated police don't have powers to respond to people sleeping rough outside Flinders Street.

Until now, Victoria Police and the City of Melbourne had provided sensible reminders that use of enforcement and move-on powers won't fix the problem, it will just shift it. Earlier this week, the Lord Mayor said: "There are cities around the world where they simply bundle homeless people up and ship them out... I'd hate to think that we were ever that sort of city."

He was right to say this, and should stick to that principle. To do otherwise would take Melbourne down an embarrassing, regressive path that is doomed to fail.

As cities around the world grapple with homelessness, we must learn from them in terms of what works and what clearly doesn't. Other cities have gone down this well-worn path of criminalisation. It is tempting. It placates an aggressive media and an uncomfortable public. It ostensibly presents a quick fix. Tourists will make their way to Rod Laver Arena without being exposed to the embarrassing reality of homelessness in Melbourne. But the problem will still be here long after the trophies have been claimed.

When the police indicate that they are powerless, it's not technically true from a legal perspective. There are options for law enforcement to respond to people carrying out their private lives in public places. In response to conduct such as begging or public drunkenness, they can use existing laws to bring people before an already overwhelmed court system or to impose fines they can't pay and, in some cases, to put them in jail at a cost of about $100,000 per year. People can be moved on for breaching the peace, endangering another person or for behaviour that is a risk to public safety.

We can continue to push police to rely on these tools. In doing so, we can push homeless people to the edges of the city or into our suburbs. We can move them further from services and support, both geographically and psychologically. We can add another layer of hardship and complexity to already difficult lives. We can clog up our courts and burden our police.

What police can't do for us is solve homelessness.

We have 22,000 people experiencing homelessness in Victoria and 33,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. The City of Melbourne has seen a 74 percent increase in people sleeping rough since 2014 and at last count it was 247 people. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of homelessness. Victorians sleeping on our streets are our most visible members of the homeless community, but there are thousands of others sleeping in cars, in crisis accommodation or on other people's couches.

While quick fixes that remove the very uncomfortable reality of homelessness may be tempting, we need to let go of the idea that they have any hope of working.

Every year, we provide free legal help to about 100 people dealing with fines and charges for conduct directly related to being homeless, including public drunkenness, begging and not having a ticket on the train or tram. A recent client had over $15,000 in fines for being drunk in public (each one is over $600). He was homeless and battling chronic alcohol dependence. He went to court over 10 times before the fines were dealt with and he could focus on his housing and rehabilitation.

While quick fixes that remove the very uncomfortable reality of homelessness may be tempting, we need to let go of the idea that they have any hope of working.

On a visit to Los Angeles in 2013 as part of a research fellowship on homelessness and regulating public space, I saw a city that had gone down this enticing law enforcement path. I heard about a woman, Annie, who had been charged 60 times for sitting on the same corner. She had recently been released from jail after being sentenced for that offending and had moved to the corner across the road. She was homeless and dealing with a mental illness. In LA, despite their devotion to moving people on and charging them for sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk, they had 5000 people sleeping in a 50 block area.

Law enforcement wasn't the answer for them and it won't be the answer for us.

Victoria can do better than a knee-jerk, short-sighted response to homelessness and poverty. We can invest in long-term housing with supports. Until we do, homelessness and the Victorians experiencing it won't be moved on and we can't arrest our way out of this crisis.



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