Addressing the harm of laws regulating public space

Addressing the harm of laws regulating public space

Friday, 2 August 2019

Last week Lucy Adams, our Strategic Advocacy and Policy Manager for Civil Justice, spoke at the launch of Parity, the national magazine published by the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP).

This edition of Parity was co-produced with Justice Connect's Homeless Law service and it focuses on the criminalisation of homelessness. It contains a collection of local and international articles on the factors that lead to enforcement-based responses to homelessness, the impact of criminalisation on people experiencing homelessness and constructive responses to reduce and prevent the criminalisation of homelessness.

Before coming to our organisation, Lucy worked with Justice Connect for eight years, including as the principal lawyer and manager of the Homeless Law service. While there she received a Churchill Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to travel to nine cities internationally and speak with over 60 experts about enforcement-based responses to homelessness. She produced a research report In the Public Eye: Addressing the Negative Impact of Laws Regulating Public Space on People Experience Homelessness.

‘What I saw through my research is that when we avoid the pressure to resort to enforcement-based approaches, we reduce harm for people experiencing homelessness, we reduce the cost and burden that relying on our justice system entails, and ultimately we’re prouder and stronger as a community,’ Lucy said.

Mental health and homelessness

Lucy highlighted the opportunity presented by the current Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System to reflect on the harm associated with an enforcement-based approach to health and social issues and the importance of keeping people out of the criminal justice system. She identified that our submission to the royal commission, Roads to Recovery: Building a Better System for People Experiencing Mental Health Issues in Victoria, calls for summary offences reform, including the abolition of the offences of public drunkenness and begging, to reduce the involvement of people in the criminal justice system in circumstances where a social or welfare response would be more appropriate. These reforms are encouraged by many others, including the Federation of Community Legal Centres, Justice Connect, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Djirra and the Human Rights Law Centre.

L–R: Lucy Adams, Lord Mayor Sally Capp, Jody Brown (CHP), Jenny Smith (CHP CEO), Samantha Sowerwine (Justice Connect)
L–R: Lucy Adams, Lord Mayor Sally Capp, Jody Brown (CHP), Jenny Smith (CHP CEO), Samantha Sowerwine (Justice Connect)

Lucy reflected on what has changed locally and internationally since her fellowship, including by seeking updates on the landscape from experts she’d spoken with five years ago.

‘What I take from the responses of these experts is that many communities, local and international, continue to face pressure to rely on the law, and on the justice system, to respond to social issues, such as homelessness and poverty.

‘As long as the offences of public drunkenness and begging are on the books we will continue to push people into the criminal justice system rather than building more enduring responses to homelessness, poverty and addiction.

‘Of course, repealing those laws won’t automatically prevent people being caught up in the justice system, but it will be a first step towards better health and housing-based responses that tackle the underlying circumstances of offending,’ she said.

More information

Learn more about Homelessness Week.

Read our submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

Read Lucy's full speech

Addressing the Harm of Laws Regulating Public Space on People Experiencing Homelessness … Five Years On

From the launch of Parity, ‘Criminalisation of Homelessness’ edition – 25 July 2019

I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we’re on today, the people of the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded and I pay my respects to elders past and present and to leaders of the future.

It is wonderful to be here with so many familiar faces to help launch this excellent publication on a subject that’s dear to my heart.

It’s over five years now since I had the great privilege of a Churchill Fellowship that took me to nine cities around the world and gave me the opportunity to speak with 60 experts about the very issues that we’re contemplating today: reducing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness.

In thinking about today, I got back in touch with some of these experts to get their updates on what progress has been made, and what challenges remain.

What I took from their responses, and what I take from the collection of compelling, insightful articles in this edition of Parity, is that as communities we continue to be tempted or pressured to rely on the law, and on the justice system, to respond to homelessness and poverty.

What I also saw through my research, and through the work of so many people here today, is that when we avoid the pressure to resort to enforcement-based approaches, we reduce harm for people experiencing homelessness, we reduce the cost and burden that relying on our justice system entails, and ultimately we’re prouder and stronger as a community.

We saw this with the City of Melbourne two years ago now, where the City came under significant pressure in the face of increasing numbers of people sleeping rough, and intensely negative media coverage. When the community was consulted about the proposal of tougher laws, 84% of respondents opposed them. It was just a good reminder that we have to be careful not to mistake a call for something to be done with a call for tougher enforcement.

To go back to some international examples, there’s a renewed movement in the UK to repeal the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. Crisis, the national homelessness charity, has launched a campaign that includes stories of people affected by the laws. To give a sense of how this work can sometimes feel, the person leading this work said to me that he was acutely aware that this is only the latest effort to repeal the Vagrancy Act, and over 195 years many others have tried and failed. Despite this, there is an air of optimism and the government has agreed to at least review the Act.

Two quotes from this work in the UK stood out to me:

  • One was a man called Sam in London who said, ‘the whole experience of the Vagrancy Act was dehumanising,’ and he asks ‘is it really in the public interest to convict people who have the misfortune of being on the streets in the first place?’
  • The second was from a police officer who said ‘I personally never found it comfortable arresting someone for rough sleeping or begging. The real reasons for homelessness are not solved by criminalising people’.
Lucy Adams speaks at the launch of Parity magazine

This idea that we rely heavily on our police as frontline responders is something that I looked into as part of my fellowship. It came out of a conversation I had with a member of Victoria Police where I preparing and trying to work out what would be useful from a police perspective. He said, ‘what’s most useful for us is if you speak to people in our position, under the pressures we face’. The way he framed it was ‘we’re out there 24/7, people who are homeless are out there 24/7, so there’s an expectation we’ll do something.’

So I spoke with a range of people, including a fantastic Assistant Chief of Metropolitan Police in Washington DC, Diane Groomes, who said a couple of things that stayed with me. She said:

‘a lot of people want us to deal with public drunkenness, but we’re not looking to arrest people. We try to take them to a detox centre … We don’t want to criminalise someone for a sickness. I don’t believe in that’.

She also said:

‘A lot of what we deal with now is not crime … a lot of investment should go into services instead of using police to solve these problems: we’re not psychologists. Social workers and social services need to be 24 hours a day. My officers are frustrated – they want to help out but the resources aren’t there. There aren’t enough services to get people into. We need a redirection of resources. At the moment it’s easy to find police, but people need services’.

I know from the police here today, and the work that Justice Connect, Victoria Legal Aid and the Council to Homeless Persons – and many others – have done with Victoria Police that there is a lot of goodwill and an appetite to do things differently.

We are at a point though where we need to recognise that, with the laws as they stand, there will always be some expectation of an enforcement-based response, and that is particularly the case for laws criminalising begging and public drunkenness.

The current Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System gives us an opportunity to properly reflect on this. I know Victoria Legal Aid, Justice Connect, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Djirra and many more are all on the record as part of the Royal Commission putting forward that we need to decriminalise public drunkenness and begging to help reduce demand on the justice system, and the enormous personal and systemic costs that come with that reliance.

We’re not alone here. In the work being done in the UK in relation to the Vagrancy Act, several police or former police have come forward supporting repeal of the law. A former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe, has said,

‘The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police alone to respond to (rough sleeping and begging), but that is a view firmly rooted in 1824. Nowadays, we know that multi-agency support and the employment of frontline outreach services can make a huge difference in helping people overcome the barriers that would otherwise keep them homeless’.

As Lord Hogan-Howe suggests, having these laws on the books creates an expectation in some elements of the community that begging and public drunkenness are justice issues, rather than issues of health, housing and poverty.

I know that I don’t need to remind this audience, but I will reiterate that the housing component of any alternative response is critical. And I know this is front and centre of the City of Melbourne’s mind, going by the fantastic advocacy of the Lord Mayor and her mayoral colleagues in relation to the need for federal funding and strategy for affordable housing.

This is one warning that came from our international colleagues, including a US-based lawyer with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. He said that positive alternatives to responding to rough sleeping risk being undermined by a lack of affordable housing. In his words, ‘40 years of affordable housing cutbacks are coming home to roost’. And even though communities are now helping more people exit homelessness, more people are continuing to enter; ‘so it looks like they are losing ground, and saps community and political will for more progressive policies’.

We of course need to avoid this happening. Permanent supported housing, and minimising evictions into homelessness, have to be core planks of our effective alternative responses to homelessness and poverty.

To give us some practical guidance and also something to excitedly keep an eye out for in coming months, two leading homelessness and public policy experts in the US have been funded to undertake research looking at existing non-punitive approaches to address rough sleeping in the US. They’re studying eight communities that are seeing results from innovative approaches to rough sleeping. The research and findings will be published later this year, but already enlightening are the criteria they’re applying for selecting communities. In short, there must be an intentional community initiative that has resulted in a reduction in rough sleeping in the last 3–10 years which includes:

  • stated goals for reducing homelessness
  • specific pathways from homelessness to housing or stability
  • an identified planning and decision-making structure
  • law enforcement policies, practice, support and participation that prioritises alternatives to punitive measures such as fines, arrest and incarceration
  • Cross-sector engagement from homeless assistance providers and emergency public safety responders, including police, fire and ambulance.

It’s not a complex framework and in many ways there are initiatives like this on a small scale in Victoria.

Those initiatives need to be scaled up. We need to commit to a Housing First approach focussed on outreach, engagement and long-term supported housing, and making sure we resist resorting to the tools in our justice toolbelt.

Two of these tools, our outdated crimes of public drunkenness and begging, are holding us back and we shouldn’t think otherwise. We shouldn’t think ‘we’ll just have them there as a back-up’. They won’t ever deliver the solutions we’re looking for and as long as they’re on the books there will be pressure to use them and less momentum for effective responses.

Of course, repealing those laws won’t automatically prevent people being caught up in the justice system, but it will pave the way for a health- and housing-based response that tackles the underlying causes of offending.

If we are to go down this path, the next edition of Parity won’t need to be about criminalisation and can instead feature Victoria standing proud as a State that is leading the way in compassionate, evidence-based approaches to homelessness and the hardships it brings.

I think certainly all of us here today would agree that as a community, we’re ready for that.

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