Homelessness Sector Welcomes Melbourne’s New ‘Protocol’ on Rough Sleepers
27 September 2017 at 11:51 am
The City of Melbourne has moved away from introducing new by-laws, which include penalties to keep rough sleepers from city streets, in a decision welcomed by the homelessness sector.
Instead the council and Victoria Police have announced a formal operating protocol to “prevent and remove group encampments in the city” – backing down from introducing fines and other penalties to force homeless people out of the city.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said the protocol had been trialled over the past five months following clashes with protesters during attempts to remove a makeshift camp outside Flinders Street Station in January this year.
“This protocol ensures we can act swiftly, comprehensively and within existing laws in collaboration with Victoria Police to remove group encampments that affect public safety and amenity, while also ensuring that the most vulnerable people have access to the services they need,” Doyle said.
“City of Melbourne compliance officers and Victoria Police have assured me that this protocol is working well and we have now formalised these arrangements.”
He told a media conference on Tuesday the new protocol “clearly sets out a number of scenarios”.
“[If] there are people who are sleeping there and there are two or three of them and they pack up their belongings and they move on the city has no issue, being homeless is not a crime,” he said.
“But if there is a gathering of more than four then … they will be able to keep personal goods, but [compliance officers] will remove the other goods and ask them to disperse.
“We needed to be more assertive and that’s why we’ve got these teams now out talking to people and meeting with people.”
In February, the council voted in favour of changing a by-law to give council officers and police “more capacity to intervene” in makeshift camps in the city.
But the council said at the time it would consult the public before making a final decision.
Homelessness peak body, Council to Homeless Persons described the council’s decision as a “practical approach to rough sleeping”.
— CHPVic (@CHPVic) September 26, 2017
CHP CEO Jenny Smith said she welcomed the lord mayor’s announcement to continue to focus on “positive, practical and proven strategies” to respond to people sleeping rough in inner Melbourne.
“Council have supported several initiatives over the past few months that are making a positive difference,” Smith said.
“Investment in the night café, increased capacity to outreach people sleeping on the street, and improved coordination of inner city services responding to rough sleepers, have together led to easier pathways to services for people without accommodation.
“In 2016 and 2017, the Victorian government has made a series of important investments responding to homelessness, many of which are now coming on line.
“The positive outcomes being achieved through the combined efforts of council and state government working closely with both police and services, has clearly demonstrated that provision of housing and the right support reduces rough sleeping.
“This approach adopts the lessons learnt from overseas, which show that punitive laws do not have a positive practical impact on homelessness, rather directly causing harm to people who are homeless.
“Council to Homeless Persons will continue to advocate for the social housing and support that is needed to end rough sleeping; this requires the federal government to underpin the efforts of state and local governments.”
Doyle said that a unique partnership had been established involving the state government, Victoria Police, the City of Melbourne and the service agencies.
“This partnership has meant that more than 160 people sleeping rough in the CBD have taken up temporary or permanent accommodation since January this year. The outreach teams are working with around 50 rough sleepers per month,” Doyle said.
“We have an obligation to our residents, businesses, students and visitors to make the city a safe, friendly and accessible place while also working proactively with service providers to ensure the most vulnerable in our community are looked after.
“That is why we have established a new high priority phone queue on our 9658-9658 number for people to report homelessness issues. A rapid response team will be dispatched to visit the site and assess the situation to determine the most appropriate response which might include support from Victoria Police, homelessness support services or to arrange for the removal of unwanted goods and cleaning of the site. We are also working on a digital reporting tool which will be up and running by the end of the week.
“The City of Melbourne has employed four new compliance staff with the relevant authorisation to act under the local law as well as training more staff to ensure that we can respond quickly and comprehensively. These officers patrol Melbourne’s streets daily.”
The lord mayor said independent legal advice on possible changes to the local by-law concluded that “its compatibility with the Charter of Human Rights was far from assured”.
“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,” Doyle said.
“Rather than get blocked down this path, I would rather act now. We will continue to operate under this protocol with Victoria Police and evaluate its effectiveness after another six months of operation.”
He said the City of Melbourne collected more than 500 kilograms of accumulated items per week from streets and parks, including items such as discarded bedding, drug paraphernalia, excrement, food waste and furniture.
“Under the protocol, personal belongings that are collected will continue to be stored while mattresses, furniture, tents or other structures deemed as camping will continue to be removed,” he said.
Chief commissioner of Victoria Police Graham Ashton said there had been a clear increase in the effectiveness of the targeted operations aimed at addressing criminal and antisocial behaviour in the CBD since the introduction of the protocol.
“Regular patrols are taking place in more areas more often to prevent encampments from developing,” Ashton said.
“These patrols also detect and address the issue of beggars who aggressively target members of the public.
“Rather than being fined, these individuals are often charged and bailed to court where they are usually required to undergo a Salvation Army program.
“We are confident that this protocol is working effectively and are pleased to formalise it with the City of Melbourne today.”
The Victorian government announced in the state budget $800 million in housing and homelessness support including $119 million dedicated towards homelessness and rough sleeping.