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Rough sleepers have been moved on from Melbourne’s city streets, but without a long-term assistance strategy, how can they rebuild their lives? By Roj Amedi.

Criminalising the homeless of Melbourne’s CBD

The council says it’s not a ban. The proposal is for an amendment to Activities Local Law, which will widen the definition of camping and allow authorised officers to confiscate and impound personal items. In simple terms, these laws criminalise sleeping rough when there are no secure, safe, stable or long-term options offered to all people who are experiencing homelessness. Put another way, the City of Melbourne is banning homelessness – or at least pushing it out of the central business district.

“This is not about arresting homeless people,” Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood insists, noting the sharp rise in rough sleepers in the city. “This is about trying to get them onto pathways, whether that’s housing, whether that’s mental health assistance, whether that’s substance abuse assistance – there are really, really, complex problems.”

Others call it dumb policy. The acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, said the changes would make criminals of rough sleepers. “It will increase people’s interaction with the justice system,” she said. “They will end up with fines which they cannot pay, they’ll end up with arrests for reacting to council officers. Increasing imprisonment will be a consequence of that.”

This form of criminalisation comes off the back of inaction in public housing provisions, cuts to welfare, the current Centrelink debt collection debacle, cuts to services for domestic violence victims, and the removal of accessible legal, health and educational services. All this places pressure on marginalised people. Life becomes an incessant act of desperation for even the most basic needs, made only worse if there are added strains caused by illness, trauma, disability or addiction.

Chris is one such person. He currently sleeps outside, along a retail strip. Chris wants to maintain good relationships with the businesses he shares the spaces with. He has got to know the staff members at each business, maintains a neat space and tries to keep to himself. Having experienced homelessness for an extended period of time, in this instance he has been sleeping on Melbourne’s streets for the past year.

Chris’s life is an example of how, without proper support and care, people can find themselves lost. Growing up, Chris had experienced childhood trauma that would continue to affect him throughout life. He aimed to soothe it by finding community in sport and then, later, in recreational drugs. Feeling disconnected and disgruntled by his circumstances, he began to use harder drugs. He found himself committing petty crimes to support his addiction, which eventually landed him in prison. Chris continued to battle his addiction, going in and out of prison over 10 years.

When he had a serious car accident and suffered an acquired brain injury, he found himself truly struggling. He received five bone grafts and six shoulder reconstructions and was later diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Head injuries sustained during the crash cause severe seizures and prevent him from maintaining regular work. He continued to use drugs to cope with the physical and psychological pain.

Life began turning around when he decided to get clean and focus on a new romantic relationship in Tasmania. In order to maintain the relationship, and keep to the rules of his parole, Chris would travel between Melbourne for parole meetings and Tasmania where he was working and trying to build a life with his new partner. It was breaking this parole that put him into prison once more and eventually ended his relationship.

After being released, Chris lived with his grandmother. When she died, he became homeless again. “I’m embarrassed about my situation,” he tells me. “And I don’t want my niece and nephew knowing.”

At one stage he was caught for begging and placed on a diversion program. The intention was for him to be placed in housing by the Salvation Army. However, he says he received no permanent housing and that the temporary housing provided was impossible to live in.

These accounts of unsafe and unstable housing are consistent among people experiencing homelessness. The myriad options for temporary housing are unaffordable, often costing about $250 a week for a single bedroom with a sink and next to no security. Many people sleeping rough find that the streets, a place where they can find community, are a far safer option in comparison with temporary unregulated housing.

Until it was recently dismantled, and the people sleeping there given a few nights of temporary accommodation at a suburban hotel, the encampment that had built up at Flinders Street in Melbourne had allowed homeless people to maintain visibility, support one another and advocate for themselves. It was not something that was manufactured by decision-makers and policymakers, but was instead an organic expression of Melbourne’s people. “There is safety in numbers; people feel safer when there are a few in the group,” explains Chris. “We do get targeted by violence a lot.”

Chris was sleeping in Edinburgh Gardens, in Melbourne’s north, when a group of people attempted to rob him. He woke up to find someone unzipping his luggage, and another person began kicking and punching him. “I ended up with a broken nose, fractured eye socket and my dentures were broken.”

As Greens councillor Rohan Leppert explained at a City of Melbourne meeting on February 7, local and state laws already legislate against the various concerns put forward to substantiate the amendments to bylaw relating to rough sleeping and camping. Yet these changes would see the homeless targeted, moved along and their belongings impounded. 

“All they are going to achieve is the crime rate will definitely go up…” Chris said. “And people are going to be locked up and put into debt when they can’t afford to pay the fines in the first place.”

In addition to these amendments, the council has allocated funding for a “public education” campaign that will persuade the public to donate to established service providers instead of providing food, supplies or money to homeless people. 

Chris points to various failed programs that have been funded by the state and fail to make significant change for people who are most in need. “These are some of the richest organisations in the world. They get given money and don’t use it properly, so why should people give them money?”

Solutions such as the amendments pursued by the City of Melbourne are costly in more ways than one. Recent research published in The British Journal of Social Work shows that it is far more expensive to provide temporary support than it is to provide stable long-term housing. These findings are supported by Australasian Psychiatry, which argues that providing people stable housing is the most effective start to assisting them with other struggles such as addiction or mental illness. As the Washington-based non-profit organisation The National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty has shown through their extensive advocacy work, these acts of criminalising the experience of homelessness only entrench the violence already experienced by the homeless.

Chris wants to become a youth worker eventually. He says all he needs is stable housing and support, so he can complete his education and start to make a difference.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Kicked to the kerb". Subscribe here.

Roj Amedi
is a writer, editor and strategist.

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