Where is Australia going when homeless are mistreated?

Homeless in Melbourne's Flinders St before being forcefully removed by the police in February this year
Contributed by Fiona Ross  (Friends of Public Housing)

On 7th February 2017, controversial proposed changes to the City of Melbourne’s bylaws were passed narrowly – 5 votes to 4. This was followed by an invitation for public submissions, before Council makes its final decision.

Mayor Doyle is keen to point out that the proposed change in the city’s by-law will not make homelessness illegal, per se. But in effect it will, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

The change to the bylaw will broaden the definition of ‘camping’, so that it no longer is confined to a vehicle, tent, caravan or temporary accommodation, but can also cover ‘rough sleeping’. Camping in a public space is not permissible without a permit. The amended by-law will also mean that homeless people can have their unattended possessions confiscated, resulting in a fine to get them back.

As part of enforcing this law, homeless people can be fined, charged or they can be ‘moved on’ by an authorised officer for non-compliance ie. camping in a public place or leaving items unattended.

Here is Friends of Public Housing Vic’s second submission to City of Melbourne regarding the proposed changes to the city’s bylaws.

We oppose the proposed changes and amendments to this legislation, because the proposed changes are an attack on the basic human rights of homeless people.

 

The Causes – Why has homelessness risen in the inner-city?

Since 2009, Australian states have been granted billions of dollars in funding to address the housing crisis for ordinary Australians on low incomes and to address homelessness. (National Affordable Housing Agreement -NAHA) The scandalous result is that there has been no appreciable increase in housing, and it is unsure where all this money has gone…it has certainly not gone into creating additional housing for those who need it most. At the same time, there has been a decrease in the number of Public Housing properties available, and an accompanying escalation of homelessness.

Another housing agreement funded with taxpayer’s money- the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) – was found to have been rorted. Half of NRAS allocations went to universities, and was used to build studio apartments with the aim of attracting overseas students, largely from wealthy families, to enroll in their universities. Although this is a valid undertaking for tertiary institutions to embark on – the purpose of NRAS was to house people on low to moderate incomes, not to bankroll the agenda of universities.

Considering housing scandals such as these, downplayed by much of the ‘mainstream media’  is locked as they are in partisan politics, it should come as no surprise that we now have homeless people camping on the streets. The rise in homelessness is the direct result of bad housing policies and their implementation by both major political parties.

The point that many people find hard to believe , unless they’ve had direct experience of the system, is that there is simply nowhere for people to go. Euphemisms such as ‘pathways out of homelessness’ presupposes that there are properties available where homeless people can go and live. The ‘pathways’ can be better described as revolving doors. The only ‘choice’ available for homeless people is overcrowded boarding houses, where they often report having to live in intolerable conditions. It’s either that, or the street.

The stealthy privatisation of public housing in Australia, and the handing over of governmental responsibilities to both private and quasi-private Community Housing will guarantee that the problem of homelessness will only get worse.

The ‘solution’ is not to take away the Human Rights of people made homeless by housing policy failures, and thereby make it even harder for them to survive. Neither is it acceptable to discourage, (and later prohibit?) members of the public, via an expensive propaganda campaign, from giving food, money and goods to homeless people.

The whole by-law amendment is really just an attempt to collectively avoid responsibility for the problem of escalating homelessness, and to make the problem go away by conveniently victimising homeless people and trying to sweep them out-of-sight and out-of-mind. It is both hypocritical and very disturbing.

People lose their rights by degrees … 

Pushing problems out of sight and thereby trying to make them disappear, solves nothing and is a dangerous tactic. Eroding people’s rights is a dangerous tactic. Other Councils may well follow suit and homeless people will end up as pariahs and outcasts pushed from pillar to post.

Lawyers opposing the change in the by-laws by City of Melbourne have argued that it could lead to homeless people being forced into the criminal justice system. Indeed, this is a global trend.

The US, which chose to privatise public housing rather than to expand it, now has goals which have become ‘catch-all’s for people with a whole range of social problems, including homelessness. Private companies in the US have built and taken over the government’s responsibility for running these goals on the condition that a quota of the beds remain full – the usual contract between corporations and US Governments being around 90 percent. This means that there is pressure to incarcerate people for committing less serious offenses, in order to reach the agreed upon quota.

Since the problems of homelessness, lack of public housing and the privatisation of this public asset are interrelated, let me draw your attention to a policy put forward by the peak body for public tenant, the Victorian Public Tenants Association (VPTA).  As a public tenant, I do not feel that the VPTA speaks for me and I know many public tenants who share this view.

In 2013, the VPTA proposed its first series of Policy Position Statements. One of these policies stated that high security ‘facilities’ (basically prisons?) should be built in rural Victoria so that people with long-term issues (e.g. failed tenancies /homelessness cycles) can be kept involuntarily if need be. These ‘Live-In Treatment Centres’ should be built for the purpose of detaining and educating the residents until they are deemed fit to ‘live successfully in mainstream society’. The VPTA recommended this course of action as a ‘cost effective solution towards breaking the failed tenancy cycle’.!!??

Of course, this begs the question, ‘What is their crime?’ -which brings us back to the creeping criminalization of homelessness and the erosion of the rights of people who are ‘in the way’ and politically powerless – such as homeless people.

Already the Andrews Labor government has decided to build a high security prison where young offenders not yet adults, will be incarcerated. This is very, very dubious.

Removing people’s rights, by degrees, and thinking that pushing a difficult social problem out of sight actually solves anything, can lead us down a very slippery slope … which is why the City of Melbourne Councilors’ decision regarding this change to the by-laws is so very important.

It seems that a great many people in public positions submit to pressures either from very powerful interest groups, or from within their own party. Sometimes against their better judgement, they take the path of least resistance. The problem of homelessness is very unlikely to affect politicians personally. Homelessness is, of course, a class issue.

Changing the definition of ‘camping’ as a way of discriminating against homeless people, has been implemented in other parts of the world – with disastrous consequences. So, has the privatisation by stealth of public housing… This change to the by-law is nothing new or original. We are simply taking our cue from other countries. Instead Australia should exercise some independence and do things differently.

According to Human Rights lawyers, the amendments are unlawful under the Charter. We wonder how this by-law will be passed by the City of Melbourne as complying with the Human Rights Charter. (Council Proposal Note 11.2) No doubt the spin doctors will find a way… a lot of fluffy talk such as ‘used with discretion’ and ‘with the co-ordination of the service providers’. Though how the service providers are expected to ‘magic up’ actual housing is anyone’s guess.

Homeless people are citizens and they have rights. 

If the visual impact of homeless people on our streets is disturbing and upsetting – as it should be – then we need to recognise the very real failures of past and present housing policies, and acknowledge that in putting profits and business interests above the needs of ordinary citizens – governments themselves have created this dire situation.

We need to find ways to house people so that they will no longer be forced to live on the streets.

It is an unusual situation that such an important decision, which has very serious ramifications, can rest with a very small number of Councilors.

We sincerely hope that Council will make what we believe to be the only right decision and vote to scrap these proposed amendments of the city’s by-laws.

 

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