Forum discusses implications of criminalising homelessness

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A public forum on March 17 discussed the implications of Melbourne City Council's proposed amendments to Activities Local Law 2009.

The changes would broaden the definition of “camping” to mean people currently sleeping rough could be forcibly moved on by police and face fines for possessing a piece of cardboard or bedding. The city of Melbourne would be effectively criminalising homelessness.

The event was co-sponsored by 3CR Community Radio and the Development, Inequality and Well-being Research Stream at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. The forum attracted more than 120 people, filling the room to capacity.

It was held on the last day of the community consultation period for the proposed changes, giving members of the audience the opportunity to make formal submissions before the deadline.

The forum heard from a range of speakers, drawing from academic research, policy, government, homeless advocacy and those with personal connections to homelessness and housing insecurity.

David Giles, an anthropologist based at Deakin University, spoke about the broad global context of these laws, arguing that laws criminalising homelessness are not just being implemented in Melbourne, but are part of a much wider global trend. Contrary to the fact that lacking shelter itself is not against the law, everything necessary to survive without it becomes illegal.

He also linked trends of increasing homelessness and lack of housing to the global dominance of neoliberal economic policies, which prioritise the interests of the rich at the expense of the majority.

Spike, from the Homeless Person’s Union of Victoria, argued that the housing crisis is the direct result of governments not investing in public housing.

A discussion was also raised about the devastating impact of the dehumanisation that homeless people face from the establishment and its media. The problem of homelessness has become so individualised that it undermines solidarity. Spike also spoke about the inadequacy of “boarding” houses — they are unsafe, expensive and provide poor living conditions, despite some saying they offer a safe pathway out of homelessness.

Melanie Raymond, from Youth Projects and the Homeless Advisory Committee in Melbourne, condemned the proposed changes as being unnecessarily cruel to homeless people and ineffective in addressing the complex issue of homelessness. She spoke about the difficulties and discrimination that homeless people will face when seeking healthcare and other services under these new laws.

Meaghan Fitzgerald, a community lawyer from Fitzroy Legal Service, made the point that there are already many laws in place that heavily regulate the use of public space. The proposed changes are by far the most offensive, because they clearly make the point that homelessness as such is not the issue of concern, but their visibility on the streets.

Former Melbourne City councillor Richard Foster criticised the response of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle in seeking to have the police enforce a law and order approach to homelessness, as opposed to other resources, such as the community sector. He said: “If the police and the courts were really any good at solving social problems, our jails would be empty now.”

He argued that we need to wage a war on poverty, not a war on the poor. He said his proposal for a solution to homelessness at the last election — a huge increase in crisis accommodation and social services and 24-hour safe zones for homeless people — would have been more effective than the proposed changes put forward by Doyle.

At the end of the panel, discussion focused on what needs to be done to oppose the ban on homelessness.

Javed, an activist involved in the campaign, said the Melbourne City Council is being deliberately obscure about which meeting will deal with the #NoHomelessBan and that it will be important for people to mobilise on the night to apply pressure. Others argued that even if the laws pass it will be important to continue the campaign and even participate in civil disobedience if necessary to defeat them.

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