‘Homeless Ban’ in Australia Cause for UN Concern
15 March 2017 at 11:32 am
Proposed amendments to a local law in Melbourne targeting homeless people living on the streets has triggered international human rights concern and questions also being asked of the federal government.
The proposed measures include a ban on camping in Melbourne and the potential for penalties to be imposed on anyone who leaves items unattended in public. The Melbourne City Council initiated 28 days of public consultation on the proposed changes which ends Thursday.
A statement from the United Nations Human Rights Commission said: “If passed, the law would legitimise discriminatory stereotypes of an already marginalised population.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing Leilani Farha said in the statement: “While homeless people are not specifically referenced, it is clear they are the target; the amendment was put forward following the forcible removal of a homeless camp in the city centre last month.
“The criminalisation of homelessness is deeply concerning and violates international human rights law. It’s bad enough that homeless people are being swept off the streets by city officials. 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.”
Farha said she had also been in contact with the federal government to discuss the issues.
“Under international human rights law, which applies to national as well as local governments, homelessness is a gross violation of the right to adequate housing. Discrimination against and social exclusion of people who are homeless is strictly prohibited. Governments are required to take immediate steps to ensure the right to housing is enjoyed on a short- and long-term basis,” she said.
“While it is commendable that the local government is consulting the public on the proposed changes to the law, the discriminatory nature of the amendments and the accompanying public campaign discouraging donations to homeless people is unacceptable.”
However the City of Melbourne has denied any proposed changes to local laws are aimed at banning homelessness.
“The City of Melbourne received a letter via the Federal Attorney-General’s department from the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing on 3 March,” council spokesperson Jem Wilson said.
“We responded to the Attorney-General’s Department in a letter [on Tuesday] explaining that council is not banning homelessness.
“The proposed local law does not prohibit rough sleeping. It seeks to regulate camping in public places and the leaving of items unattended in public places.”
The council said the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police had requested that Melbourne consider making changes to its local laws in response to large camps that were being set up around the central city.
“We are actively seeking feedback on the proposed local law from across the community, including from people who would be directly affected by the proposed changes and homelessness services, as well as legal experts,” Wilson said.
The council said it had already received 391 submissions during the consultation period and almost 1,000 responses to the public online survey.
“We have also undertaken 19 face-to-face consultation sessions with people who are experiencing homelessness, our homelessness advisory committee, businesses, disability groups, and homelessness service providers. This included 98 surveys being completed by people experiencing homelessness,” Wilson said.
In the past two years council figures show that there has been a 74 per cent increase in the number of people sleeping rough in the municipality.
“We don’t want to see people setting up camps that affect the safety, amenity and accessibility for everyone using public spaces. We don’t want to accept a situation where large groups of people see sleeping on a city street as the best long-term choice they have available,” Wilson said.
Council to Homeless Persons responded to the UN’s concerns saying that Melbourne could be making international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
“These proposed laws won’t fix anything, and will force vulnerable people into darker corners and factory floors of our city,” CEO Jenny Smith told Pro Bono News.
“The state government has made some excellent commitments in recent weeks to boost social housing, but much of this housing won’t come down the pipeline for many months, if not years.
“Punishing people now when there is not housing for them is cruel and ineffective.”
Smith said: “Homes fix homelessness, not laws”.
“Until we address the housing affordability crisis, we’ll see more people arriving in our streets, and if these laws are passed, instead of getting help they’ll be getting fines and when they don’t pay, costly time in jail.
“It is time for federal action on housing affordability that doesn’t tamper with the current investment in public and community housing for 320,000 vulnerable households in our community.”
The council is not expected to release the findings or outcomes of the community consultations until April.