06/04/2017 3:33 PM AEST | Updated 06/04/2017 3:57 PM AEST

Melbourne's Laws Outlawing Homelessness, And The Campaign To Reverse Them

'Being homeless isn't a choice. Fining people won't deter them'.

Melbourne's homelessness sector has launched a last-ditch effort asking the city council to reconsider laws which experts say would breach human rights by effectively outlawing being homeless in the CBD.

Following widespread media coverage of homeless camps near Flinders Street station during the Australian Open tennis tournament, Melbourne authorities moved to dismantle the structures and move people on. Melbourne's lord mayor, Robert Doyle, was said to be "waging war" on the homeless.

The city then proposed laws which would make it an offence to camp in public -- which would include people sleeping rough in tents or on city streets -- as well as give authorities more power to confiscate unattended items and charge a $388 fee to get them back, and issue fines for leaving items unattended.

The City of Melbourne has been holding public consultations on the proposed by-laws, with reports that 84 percent of the 2550 submissions were opposed to the changes.

On Thursday, an alliance of 54 groups including welfare agencies, church leaders and legal experts submitted an alternative 14-point plan for Melbourne to ease its homelessness issue without making the problem into an offence. Instead of expanding powers for belongings to be confiscated and impounded, the group suggests installing secure lockers for homeless people to store their things, 'safe spaces' at night for rough sleepers to congregate, an expansion of outreach programs, and early intervention legal services to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

"Being homeless isn't a choice. Fining people won't deter them," said Justice Connect manager and principal lawyer, Lucy Adams. She told The Huffington Post Australia the laws would simply force homeless people into surrounding suburbs and council areas where the Melbourne laws don't apply, rather than actually solving any of the homelessness issues.

"It's a punitive approach. It will push them to the edges of the city away from services, lump them with fines they can't pay. It will increase the hardship of people already doing it tough. What it won't do is solve homelessness."

Cathy Humphrey is the CEO of Sacred Heart Mission, a service which operates in the City of Port Phillip. She told HuffPost Australia she is convinced homeless people will just migrate to areas like Port Phillip, just spreading the problem wider.

"It doesn't solve the problem, just moves it around. It's not just a Melbourne issue. People sleeping rough is becoming more visible around the suburbs of Melbourne, and this happening without a larger community response is problematic," she said.

"These are people's personal possessions, their ID, their clothing, personal effects. This stuff is being taken from them in the process of retrieving items left on the street. These are powers that will further marginalise and discriminate against this group."

"There are other means the city can use to help people sleeping rough. You don't need to criminalise it."

The alternative plan proposed by the social agencies includes:

  • More lockers and storage for rough sleepers;
  • Clear guidance about belongings;
  • More safe spaces at night;
  • Daily Support Teams;
  • Collaboration between businesses, homeless services and people who've experienced homelessness;
  • Involve people experiencing homelessness in solutions;
  • Help the public understand the causes of homelessness;
  • Prevention (support services and legal frameworks to prevent evictions into homelessness);
  • Housing with support (more investment in social and affordable housing);
  • Access to health, mental health and drug and alcohol services.

Adams said more housing stock was the most obvious solution, and one that was being invested in more -- particularly by the Victorian state government -- but short and medium-term solutions were needed in the interim.

"We've seen a recent significant and very commendable commitment from the govt for social housing, but it's not an instant fix and while these quick fixes are tempting they won't work," she said.

"33,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing. The standard waiting time for a single person even with urgent needs is up to four years."

Humphrey agreed.

"This is a human rights issue, it's a lack of social housing. We've got a government that has made lots of announcements about investments but that will take time to come to fruition, and meanwhile we've got this crisis," she said.

"We need to address this issue of temporary shelter while we work on long-term options."


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