Law enforcement is not the answer to public space issues and homelessness – international experience shows
10 June 2014
An international comparison of responses to public space issues involving people experiencing homelessness shows that law enforcement responses are not the answer.
“Laws that regulate public space are rarely intended to punish people for their homelessness – but this is often the effect,” said Lucy Adams, Manager and Principal Lawyer of Justice Connect Homeless Law. Ms Adams recently returned to Melbourne after travelling to the USA, Canada and Europe on a Churchill Fellowship, speaking to more than 60 experts from 40 organisations in nine cities.
The Report In the Public Eye: Addressing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness contains 10 key recommendations for a better informed, more efficient and effective approach to dealing with visible homelessness and related conduct in our communities.
“Circumstances that cause people to be sleeping rough, begging or drinking in public are almost always health and social issues, not criminal ones. We need to shift away from the idea that police and courts are the best way of dealing with these issues. Once we recognise law enforcement isn’t the answer to homelessness, there’ll be room to consider more effective responses,” she said.
Justice Connect Homeless Law provides direct legal assistance to more than 200 clients with fines and charges for conduct directly related to homelessness each year.
“These are complex social issues and we need to make sure our responses are based on evidence about what works and what doesn’t. Decision makers should consider qualitative and quantitative data about the problems, their causes and the impact of enforcement based approaches. Better information will help create better responses,” explained Ms Adams.
In the Report, Ms Adams says there should be much more focus put into collaboration between agencies and breaking down stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness.
“Health, housing and service based responses to homelessness and public space offending aren’t cheap, but in most cases they’re cheaper than enforcement. Enforcement is costly for government, police and courts and we should carefully evaluate the full cost in comparison to alternative approaches,” Ms Adams said. The Report cites a study in Canada which showed that 16,800 hours of police time had been used issuing tickets for begging, which cost the state $936,000, and only $8,086 in tickets had been paid. “In addition to being costly, enforcement is a blunt instrument for dealing with a vulnerable community – prison should not be a substitute for supported housing, mental health care or substance dependence treatment,” Ms Adams concluded.
The Report In the Public Eye is available online www.justiceconnect.org.au/inthepubliceye
Lucy Adams, Manager and Principal Lawyer – 0409 664 883
Alicia Patterson – 0403 172 024 / Alicia.firstname.lastname@example.org