arch-peace editorials

12 December 2017

EDITORIAL | Precarious Shifts in Homelessness Policy

Hard-line civic law changes, damaging to the rights of homeless persons, appear destined for defeat. But compliance officers may yet wield greater powers, and a crackdown on Melbourne’s most vulnerable is still on the cards.

Tsiboho, photographed sleeping rough at the corner of Swanston and Collins streets - 03/12/17.

Homelessness is on the rise in Melbourne. The increased presence on the streets, especially in the inner city, can hardly go unnoticed. Rough sleepers are seen bedding down on footpaths throughout the CBD, an uncomfortable truth that might have been inconceivable 5 or 10 years ago. It's a concern matched by data. In 2015 council’s StreetCount survey observed 83 people sleeping rough, the next year the figure had ballooned out to 247. Of those surveyed in 2016, 68% had been entrenched in homelessness for over a year. Coupled with an acute shortage of supportive housing, and with welfare services already stretched, Melbourne’s dire trend looks set to continue.

The City of Melbourne’s response to the unfolding crisis was unsettling. Apparent pressure from Victoria Police saw the creation of draft local law amendments, gazetted for community comment in February. They contained greater powers for civic law enforcement. The wording expanded the definition of camping: not only would the term include those sleeping in tents or cars; it could also include persons under blankets and sleeping bags, or without any bedding at all. Furthermore, ‘camping’ would not just be reserved for overnight or longer stays, it might mean those stopping for any time; even resting out in the open, during the day. The result of these changes, seemingly subtle, would be anything but. It would give council officers the power to move-on rough sleepers from any public open space. Failure to comply could be met with police arrest.

But the amendments didn't stop there. They also proposed to allow council officers to seize and impound any unattended belongings. Homeless persons were now expected to guard their possessions constantly, or risk having them confiscated. And if that wasn't enough, council also suggested a degrading $338 fee for retrieval. A ludicrous plan, offensive even if it could have been afforded.

Many wondered where these punitive measures had come from. The council that had historically defended the disadvantaged, with sound homelessness policy, was now appearing to turn its back. So significant were the implications that news spread far and wide. Even the UN body responsible for human rights caught wind of the plans, and gave a scathing assessment through Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha:

“The criminalisation of homelessness is deeply concerning and violates international human rights law..the proposed law goes further and is discriminatory - stopping people from engaging in life sustaining activities, and penalising them because they are poor and have no place to live.”

The local backlash was just as decisive. The City of Melbourne’s public consultation process received a staggering 2,556 responses, with up to 90% recording a negative reaction. 84% against expanding the definition of ‘camping’, and an overwhelming 98% against the charge to recover belongings. Many respondents regarded the amendments as a shift in the council’s culture, as noted in high level analysis from the Submissions Committee:

“Although the focus of the the proposed Local Law is on improving amenity, the proposed changes have been seen as ‘referendum on homelessness’ and a change of approach from Council’s current role of supporting homeless people.”

In the the face of widespread condemnation, the council backed down. In September, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle announced that the controversial amendments would be shelved. The mayor had received advice from law firm Maddocks reinforcing the concerns of legal professionals and homelessness advocates: that the laws may be in breach of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities; and could “conceivably” result in cruel or degrading treatment. The mayor summed it up as follows:

“I have no doubt that any change to the local law would be tested in the courts, which could tie us up in expensive legal proceedings potentially for more than a year. Whether you win or lose you lose. You lose in time, you lose in the people you're trying to help, you lose in dollars.”

However, it was also revealed that council had already begun trialing a new Homelessness Protocol, drafted in association with Victoria Police. The protocol encourages greater intervention under the existing Activities Local Law. And whilst the law does not authorize a police response, it does emphasise greater collaboration between agency law enforcement and council’s Authorised Officers. The protocol also indicates the changing nature of council’s engagement with homeless persons, favouring “more assertive actions”. These include provisions to remove unattended belongs:

“Items left unattended which impact on the amenity, enjoyment and use of the public space or that create a potential security risk will be removed with personal items stored and the remainder disposed of”...”Belongings should be kept to a reasonable minimum, being two bags which can be carried and other bedding like a sleeping bag, blanket or pillow.”

Rough sleepers will be not be allowed to gather together in number, with groups of more than 4 considered to be a “heightened amenity impact”, to be “strongly discouraged”. Council officers will have the authority to disperse larger groups and can “call on police to intervene if safety risk is perceived”. Entrances to businesses and residences must not be blocked: “customers are to be free to enter and exit all buildings when open”. Disabled access must maintained throughout the municipality and not be impeded.

What both examples above demonstrate, is that council has firmly shifted policy towards a “lower tolerance of street clutter and amenity impacts”. But whilst ‘street clutter’ may be qualified as more than 2 bags of personal belongings; or more than 4 rough sleepers gathered together, an unacceptable ‘amenity impact’ is more difficult to identify. The protocol states that “behaviour in the public space should not impact the enjoyment of other users of the public place”, and gives a scenario example:

“A group of rough sleepers set up in one city block during the day which intimidates other user[s] of the public space and impacts amenity.”

The appropriate response under the existing law is then given:

“CoM will use its power under the Activities Local Law regarding behaviour (part 2), specifically nuisance (clause 2.1a) and amenity (clause 2.1b) to take action and will call upon VicPol to intervene if safety risk is perceived.”

The degree to which a homeless person's’ presence or activity ‘intimidates’ other users, or provides a ‘nuisance’ seems highly subjective. Assessment of such would be up to the discretion of the individual officers involved. However, it should be noted that council has provided a strong mechanism for public complaint making, with options available to report a homeless person's behavior via automatic telephone prompts.

Lara Brown and Stephen Herbst representing Architects for Peace at council’s submissions committee meeting on 06/04/17. Our written submission against the proposed local law amendments was received by council in March. Photo Chester Ngan.

It is clear that homelessness policy in City of Melbourne is undergoing a process of change. Evidenced in the Local Law amendments, and the homelessness protocol, is a perceptible shift of focus. The field of view is being redirected towards addressing the coalface symptoms of homelessness, and away from its root causes. Council appears to be intent more than ever on ‘cleansing’ its streets, rather than lighting up ‘pathways out of homelessness’ for the city’s vulnerable.

Thankfully, community expectations have not moved in the same direction. The impassioned response to the proposed Local Laws shows a discerning acknowledgement of the complexities of the homelessness crisis. There was a clear call for compassion, from constituents and community organisations alike, and respondents reinforced the need for increased supportive housing and welfare services.

Architects for Peace firmly shares this sentiment, and continues to watch this area closely. We will look to share further developments, as the homelessness protocol proceeds through its trial phase.

Stephen Herbst - Editor


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