Vol 11, Issue 2
For a long time, while living in a glass and steel student apartment complex next to the Curtin Hotel, I would wander down Lygon St to the corner where the Curtin and Trades Hall face each other, before continuing down Russell St to go grocery shopping.
Once, I saw a bed trailing down the steps of the State Library’s Russell St side. It was just across from other glass and steel apartments: apartments not unlike those that developers planned to erect where the Corkman Pub stood; or which might soon stand at the site of a factory that opened in 1902 in Footscray and burned down last week in suspicious circumstances, taking with it the lives of three squatters who had lived there for over a year - a factory owned by developers with plans to build a massive 1400-apartment 'multi-tower'.
To be honest, I liked seeing that bed by the State Library each night. The encampment in such a public part of what The Economist considers the world’s most liveable city gave physical form to one of urban life’s realities: homelessness.
Section 49A of Victoria’s Summary Offences Act 1966 allows the state to imprison anyone who begs for up to 12 months.
Certainly, not all who beg are homeless; but the overwhelming majority are. According to the Crime Statistics Agency, between January 2011 and December 2015, 841 charges were laid against people for begging.
But things may get worse still.
The City of Melbourne has proposed changes to the Activities Local Law 2009, which regulates the use of public space, to stipulate that ‘[A] person must not camp in or on any public place’. This effectively makes it illegal to sleep on the street (‘camp’ is not defined). An authorised officer can also direct a person to move on and, if the person fails to comply, fine or charge them.
The proposed changes would also allow unattended property to be confiscated and sold, destroyed, or given away if a fee is not paid within 14 days, as well as levying a separate $388 fine for leaving items unattended in the first place.
Melbourne has also suggested launching a new campaign to discourage people from donating to the homeless, in a bid to reduce the ‘2750kg of abandoned rubbish’ (such ‘rubbish’ including identification, medication, prescriptions, journals, family photos, and artwork) that council have already removed.
What could these changes mean?
As you may imagine, belongings will inevitably be left behind when people need to get food or use the toilet.
Many people I have spoken to have described having their personal belongings taken. One person recalled returning to discover all of their belongings had been removed after leaving them alone for just an hour. They were unable to get them back, and knew of several others who had suffered similar experiences.
The right not to have one’s home and privacy interfered with is protected by Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, as well as international law. Leaving aside the complete disregard our double standard toward the homeless shows for the rights of all individuals to have their personal property respected and untampered with, the proposals also represent the invasion of an individual’s personhood. It is Melbourne telling its homeless that they do not have a right to their belongings, and raises concerns of discrimination, if not cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Simply put, it takes advantage of the vulnerable.
Born in Kalgoorlie, WA, and growing up in Laverton and Kalgoorlie before attending high school and university in Perth, I was genuinely shocked to hear that begging could possibly be an offence in Victoria. Because, well…a lot of Perth folk think Melbourne is pretty cool. In university we spent half our time complaining that Perth wasn’t more like Melbourne, and half our time complaining that we were not yet in Melbourne. When we’re not wearing tank tops, driving unnecessarily large cars down palm-tree lined freeways, or bashing up someone/being bashed ourselves at the corner petrol station, we’re looking up to Melbourne. Melbourne has arts. Melbourne has history. Politics. A human rights charter. Two different state newspapers. Whereas Perth…Perth just feels like Los Angeles, but with better beaches.
Speaking of LA, they had one of the world's toughest approaches to homelessness, including a ban on sitting, sleeping or lying on the footpath. In spite of this, they still had the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States.
Why import someone else’s failed social experiment?
Under the Bridge
Melbourne’s proposed laws threaten to simply sweep a real social problem under the carpet.
Hiding people away in cars and under bridges, or pushing them out to other council districts, does not solve homelessness. It does, however, isolate people from services and assistance, reduce the ability of authorised officers to effectively engage with them, and potentially expose people to a greater risk of violence. Instituting fines and charges (as well as criminal records if people fail to appear in court) does not solve homelessness. It does, however, put further strain on the justice system as people cycle endlessly through the courts.
Instead of such a costly band-aid, Melbourne should work with State and Federal governments to address the underlying causes of begging (including Victoria's public housing waiting list of 33,940 people). Rather than spending taxes on hospital beds, ambulance rides, and criminal prosecution, we should continue to invest in permanent supportive housing.
It is housing, not prosecution, that allows people to live with the dignity they deserve.
What can you do?
You can help convince Melbourne City Council not to go ahead with its proposed changes by sharing your thoughts on them at Justice Connect’s Homeless Law website before March 17.
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