NFPs Slam Proposal to Make Rough Sleeping Illegal in Melbourne
20 January 2017 at 5:00 pm
A group of not-for-profit organisations have said they are “dismayed” at reports that sleeping rough in Melbourne could be made illegal.
Earlier on Friday Lord Mayor Robert Doyle told News Corp that he would propose a bylaw at the next council meeting to outlaw people sleeping on CBD streets, if it had the support of police.
“I am happy to put this proposal before councillors at our first meeting if it is Victoria Police’s recommendation, and they guarantee that they will enforce it,” Doyle said.
“Police already have powers to arrest for obstruction, for drug use, for threatening or aggressive behaviour, and for begging, and I would like to see them make full use of those powers as well.
“I welcome any move by police to bring an end to what has become a blight on our city, and the City of Melbourne continues to work with them to do that.”
The issue has become increasingly controversial since council officers and police moved camps of homeless people out of the CBD for the Australian Open.
After Doyle’s announcement the CEOs of Council to Homeless Persons, Justice Connect Homeless Law, Launch Housing, Melbourne City Mission, The Salvation Army Victoria and VincentCare made a joint statement warning against making rough sleeping illegal.
“We are dismayed at reports that Melbourne may soon be known as the city that arrests people for being poor and homeless,” they said.
“We know that we can do better than knee-jerk, short-sighted responses that hide the homeless out of sight, but fail to address the nub of the problem.”
The CEOs said they were “very keen” to discuss the impact of criminalising homelessness, on both their clients and workers, with police and council.
“Moving on the homeless does not make them disappear, it just pushes them into other municipalities, or into dark places where their complex health, mental health and addiction issues go unmanaged,” they said.
“In worst case scenarios, it pushes them into our already crowded jails where their only crime is being poor and homeless.”
They also expressed surprise at the council reversing its stance on the issue.
“Until now, the City of Melbourne has been working incredibly hard to manage the humanitarian crisis on our streets in a compassionate way that considers public safety. This about-turn on policy has come as a shock,” they said.
They argued that making rough sleeping illegal ignored the root of the problem and tougher police action would worsen the issue.
“Currently people are told they’ll be waiting for public housing for anywhere from six months to 15 years. In most cases, the only accommodation they can be offered is in rooming houses and crisis beds. Some people decline these offers as they say they feel safer on the streets,” they said.
“Police already have powers to deal with aggressive behaviour, drug use, breaching the peace and behaviour that is a risk to public safety. These are important powers for the police to have available however, the reality is that using them often results in people being forced into an already overwhelmed court system or lumped with fines they can’t pay.
“The police cannot solve homelessness. In Los Angeles, where it is illegal to sit or sleep on the street, and police have significant move-on powers, homelessness continues to be a serious and ongoing issue. A recent study trip counted 5,000 people sleeping in a 50 block area.”
The group said the solution was beyond the scope of council to solve, and called for a national response.
“Councils cannot be left to carry the burden of solving a crisis that is underpinned by a national shortage of affordable housing, both in private rental and social housing,” they said.
“The only solution is for state and federal governments to join together to tackle the housing crisis that grips the country, and underlies our homelessness epidemic.
“This is not a Melbourne-specific problem, this is a national problem being driven by a chronic shortage of affordable housing. Homelessness has not appeared overnight, and will not be solved overnight.
“While quick fixes that remove the very uncomfortable reality of homelessness may be tempting, we need to let go of the idea that they have any hope of working. Law enforcement as a response to homelessness has failed in other cities internationally, and will fail here.
“Victoria must do better than punishing its most vulnerable citizens for being poor and homeless. We can invest in long-term housing with supports. Until we do, homelessness and the Victorians experiencing it won’t be moved on and we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis.”
Earlier this week the CEOs of 36 homelessness and housing organisations, including those who spoke out on Friday, penned an open letter criticising the vilification of rough sleepers as the controversy in Melbourne began to rise.