In the Public Eye Churchill Report

2 June 2014
This Churchill Report by Homeless Law Manager Lucy Adams presents 10 recommendations for addressing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness

This report presents 10 recommendations for a better informed, more effective, more efficient response to people experiencing homelessness in public spaces.

It is informed by the insights, expertise and practical experience of over 60 experts from over 40 organisations in the US, Canada and Europe, as well as the evidence-base from Homeless Law’s provision of direct legal services to approximately 200 clients with fines and charges for conduct directly related to homelessness each year.

It is hoped that these recommendations will inform conversations and contemplations about the way we as a community respond to visible homelessness and hardship, and contribute to a shift away from law enforcement and the justice system as the first resort for regulating public space.    

Background – homelessness and public space  

Scott is a 42 year old father of five.  He has an acquired brain injury, he battles depression and anxiety and he has struggled with alcohol dependence for over 20 years.  He has been homeless for large parts of his adult life.  Scott approached Justice Connect Homeless Law for assistance with thousands of dollars in fines for being drunk in a public place.  Each one was over $500.  His weekly income was $250. We assisted Scott to navigate the legal system set up to deal with fines and infringements.  Two years, four court appearances and 13 supporting reports later, the fines had been resolved. Throughout the protracted process, despite a concerted effort at recovery, Scott had received more fines during relapses. And so the process started again.

Justice Connect Homeless Law is a legal service for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.   Each year we provide legal assistance to approximately 200 people who have received fines or charges for ‘public space offences’, including having an open container of liquor in public, begging, being drunk in a public place, littering, and conduct on public transport (for example, not paying to travel, smoking on the platform or having your feet on the seat). 

Homelessness makes it:

  • more likely that you will receive fines or charges for public space offences because you are carrying out your private life in a public place; and
  • extremely difficult to deal with fines or charges either through payment or navigating the unwieldy legal process.

The laws, policies and practices that seek to regulate public space often do not effectively address the underlying causes of a person’s offending.  Instead, financial penalties or charges are issued to struggling people, increasing the strain they’re already under.  The system also places a burden on legal and community services that assist clients to deal with their fines and charges and causes congestion in the courts.

The international context – enforcement-based approaches to homelessness

The use of enforcement to deal with the presence and activities of people experiencing homelessness in public spaces is not unique to Victoria. 

There has been a proliferation of laws, policies and practices internationally that seek to address homelessness through enforcement-based measures. These measures vary significantly in their form, intention and impact. They include laws expressly prohibiting the presence or activities of people experiencing homelessness (such as laws prohibiting sitting, sleeping or lying on the sidewalk and begging); differential or discriminatory enforcement of neutral laws (for example, laws prohibiting jaywalking or public drunkenness); and the collaborative use of enforcement measures, including police involvement and court orders, intended to prompt people experiencing homelessness to engage with services.

One of the consistent messages from my conversations is that decision-makers often turn to enforcement because of a perceived lack of alternatives. Part of this project is about identifying alternatives by highlighting jurisdictions that are doing things differently. If we can see models that are working in other places, there is little justification for us to persist with inefficient, ineffective enforcement-based approaches to visible homelessness in our communities.

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 so easy to find police, but people need services.

- Assistant Chief Groomes of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department


Read the report:

It contains more than 50 case studies based on examples provided by over 60 experts, including academics, UN experts, police, lawyers, government staff, homeless sector workers and people with a direct experience of homelessness. 

In the Public Eye - Churchill Report.pdf

Related content: