Law Enforcement No Solution to Homelessness - Report
Tuesday, 5th August 2014 at 10:29 am
Law enforcement is not the way to respond to public space issues and homelessness, says a recently released report out of Justice Connect’s Homeless Law program.
The report was by Lucy Adams, Manager and Principal Lawyer of Justice Connect’s Homeless Law program, who travelled to the US, Canada and Europe on a Churchill Fellowship and spoke to more than 60 experts from 40 organisations in nine cities to gather evidence and data about the ‘criminalisation’ of homelessness.
In the Public Eye: Addressing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness makes 10 key recommendations for a better informed, more efficient and effective approach to dealing with visible homelessness and related conduct in our communities.
“Informed by the insights, expertise and practical experience of over 60 experts from over 40 organisations in nine cities, as well as the evidence-base from Homeless Law’s provision of direct legal services to approximately 200 clients with fines and charges for conduct directly related to homelessness each year, this report presents 10 recommendations for a better informed, more effective, more efficient approach to dealing with the presence and activities of people experiencing homelessness in public spaces,” the report said.
“It is hoped that these recommendations will inform conversations and contemplations about the way we as a community respond to visible homelessness and hardship, and contribute to a shift away from law enforcement and the justice system as the first resort for regulating public space.”
The recommendations include: recognise that law enforcement is not the obvious solution; distinguish between health problems and criminal ones; avoid enforcement-based approaches that react to community discomfort; work with non-traditional partners; and undertake transparent cost assessments before, during and after enforcement-based approaches.
In the Report, Lucy Adams said there should be much more focus put into collaboration between agencies and breaking down stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness.
“Health, housing and service based responses to homelessness and public space offending aren’t cheap, but in most cases they’re cheaper than enforcement,” she said.
“Enforcement is costly for government, police and courts and we should carefully evaluate the full cost in comparison to alternative approaches."
The Report cites a study in Canada which showed that 16,800 hours of police time had been used issuing tickets for begging, which cost the state $936,000, and only $8,086 in tickets had been paid.
“In addition to being costly, enforcement is a blunt instrument for dealing with a vulnerable community – prison should not be a substitute for supported housing, mental health care or substance dependence treatment.
“Laws that regulate public space are rarely intended to punish people for their homelessness – but this is often the effect.
“During Homeless Persons’ Week [August 4-10] when we search for ways to address homelessness and examine the issues that create and compound the problem, it’s important that we are realistic about what the law can and should do – and its limitations.
“Circumstances that cause people to be sleeping rough, begging or drinking in public are almost always health and social issues, not criminal ones. We need to shift away from the idea that police and courts are an efficient way of dealing with these issues. Once we recognise law enforcement isn’t the answer to homelessness, there’ll be room to consider more effective responses,” the report said.
Justice Connect Homeless Law provides direct legal assistance to more than 200 clients with fines and charges for conduct directly related to homelessness each year.
“These are complex social issues and we need to make sure our responses are based on evidence about what works and what doesn’t. Decision makers should consider qualitative and quantitative data about the problems, their causes and the impact of enforcement based approaches. Better information will help create better responses,” Adams said.
The Report In the Public Eye is available online here.