February 1, 2017: Rough sleepers alongside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, standing their ground, calling for more public housing as they await eviction. (Photo: David Boarder Giles)
Laws prohibiting the homeless from sleeping, eating, soliciting, or, let’s face it, being seen at all in public, are older than most modern institutions. They have always been short-sighted political “solutions”, overshadowed by their long-term costs—financial costs to the city’s coffers, social costs to those sleeping rough, and moral costs to us all. After all, when none other than the Lord Mayor of Melbourne publicly abjures his homeless fellow Melbournians as a “running sore”, we are all diminished.
These laws don’t work because, common prejudices notwithstanding, homelessness is not a choice. Banning it is like ploughing the ocean. However many short-term carrots or sticks are proffered, our economy doesn’t work for everyone. Indeed, as 1,760 new Melbournians each week compete for increasingly unaffordable housing, it should be no surprise that more people are sleeping rough. Without long-term change, the most vulnerable among us will always need a place to go. And when private spaces are reserved for paying customers, our public spaces—for they are members of the public—will be continue to be their last resort.
I have spent over a decade researching homelessness in the US and Australia. Melbourne’s proposed sleeping ban is just the latest variation on an old theme. French poet, journalist and novelist Anatole France pointed out in the 19th century that “the law prohibits rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the street, and steal loaves of bread”. In the United States, that list has expanded in recent decades. In a years-long public relations nightmare, San Francisco arrested over a thousand people for sharing food. Las Vegas barred individuals from sharing food with anybody who appeared indigent. Seattle banned sitting or lying on the footpath. Santa Cruz banned—and confiscated—blankets. (Another media debacle.) Countless cities followed suit, also prohibiting public urination (despite scarce public toilets) and “aggressive” panhandling (subject though the term be to interpretation, hunger, and cold).
Advocates call this the criminalisation of homelessness, for although lacking shelter itself is not illegal, everything necessary to survive without it is. Australian cities like Melbourne and Brisbane are coming late to the game. Shall we follow the United States down this slippery slope?
If something can be a crime, it must be presumed a choice. The rationale here is that homelessness can be discouraged, much as the 19th century workhouses were designed to do. Following this line of thought, for example, Victorian police chief Graham Ashton accused rough sleepers recently evicted from Flinders Street of pretending in order to “fleece” tourists.
Yet, having met several of the evictees, I believe the chief’s claims are ill informed at best. Indeed, in 10 years, I have never met a single rough sleeper who would not prefer safe, dry accommodation.
However, sometimes compromises are necessary. As a good friend, veteran, and rough sleeper once explained: “Shelters are good places to get stabbed, to get your stuff stolen, or to get tuberculosis”. I had naively written him a list of the shelters in the city, not realising he had already tried them. My mistake was common enough. Working from my own stereotypes (perhaps like Ashton), I had forgotten that people who are homeless know more about homelessness than me. Usually they are making the best—often only—choices they can given their circumstances. Accordingly, some Flinders Street evictees explained that what shelter was available had been untenable. Their camp was a practical alternative for several reasons, including community, safety, and visibility to passersby who might make donations.
If homelessness is not a choice, these laws can do nothing to prevent it—or even to hide it for very long. Instead, they represent a hefty burden on the public purse, and an even greater one on shelterless people. Police are tasked with ticketing or arresting them. The courts, with prosecuting them. And the jails, with housing them. Upon release, the shelterless (now criminals, vital possessions confiscated or discarded) find themselves further from stability than before. A cycle begins, ever more inescapable. And their number does not diminish. Even the harshest Vagrancy Acts of Tudor England—which ordered vagrants branded with a V—were eventually forced to include provisions for charity, as the landless multiplied regardless of the punishments.
Although these bans do not work, they appear like clockwork wherever wealth and poverty compete for space. Seattle’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project found, for example, that the proliferation of anti-homeless laws across Washington State corresponded to increasing privatisation and for-profit development in public spaces. To the extent that Australian cities, too, embrace such developments, we can expect more such laws.
We have good evidence that the money can be better spent supporting the shelterless than prosecuting them. Through programs like “Housing First” in the United States (and in Australian trials), it turns out to be cheaper to simply give chronically homeless people shelter than to pay for the gamut of public services that accompany a life on the street. It must be said that Victorian state government does provide some assistance, including 40 transitional housing units immediately available to homeless in the CBD, and an additional 30 units by the end of the year. Nonetheless, such assistance cannot meet the needs of the 247 people sleeping rough in the CBD at last count, or the others who will come after them. (Evictees I spoke with said they had been offered only a few days’ accommodation at a motel.)
State and city governments must, therefore, invest more in public housing, and tame an inhumane housing market (with over 80,000 vacancies idling while rents rise). Despite their anti-homeless ordinances, some American cities offer promising models in this regard—San Francisco and New York practice rent control, Seattle regulates prohibitive move-in costs. However even these measures will fail some people. We must be open to all possible options for equitable coexistence, from tiny homes, as in Portland’s Dignity Village, to city-sanctioned encampments and safe parking lots, as trialled by Seattle. In this, Melbourne has an opportunity to steer Australia along a different path from that taken by so many American cities. We have an opportunity to learn to share our home and earn the moniker ‘most liveable city’.