Criminalising people experiencing homelessness: a counterproductive approach
Amongst the joy of the New Year, there are a handful of reports of the ongoing criminalisation of people experiencing homeless. In Queensland, a man seeking shelter at a bus station was fined $652 for ‘illegally camping’. Instead of directing the man to a safe space, he was penalised for not having a home. For people with no fixed address, paperwork relating to fines can get lost in the mail. Final payment notices are never received, and the $652 fine can lead to extreme consequences such as imprisonment. This is where the relationship between imprisonment and people experiencing homelessness begins. Baldry et al (2006) emphasise this relationship, revealing people in unstable housing circumstances are more likely to go to prison. This punitive cycle exacerbates the already tough circumstances for our most vulnerable people. Once you have a criminal record, it is almost impossible to gain employment or apply for public housing. A system designed to punish rather than rehabilitate is fatally flawed. To stop people experiencing homelessness and end this damaging cycle, Australia needs to change the way we perceive people experiencing homelessness.
The criminalisation of homelessness is a preferable strategy to ‘deal’ with this social issue for two reasons. First, Rankin (2019) emphasises the strong, often unconscious stigmatisation of visible poverty. People who witness human struggle – particularly those who encounter homelessness - feel scared, annoyed or disgusted. This helps create a social license for coercive law enforcement that ‘punish’ people experiencing homelessness. Second, the misconception that homelessness cannot be solved exacerbates the criminalisation of homelessness. Putting this social issue in the “too-hard-basket” avoids examining the core reasons this social issue continues to prevail. Increasingly popular laws and policies that aim to eradicate visible poverty from public space spark the cycle of imprisonment and homelessness. We know these laws don’t work. We’ve seen people experiencing homelessness removed from Melbourne’s CBD, and the numbers have gotten worse. Putting people in handcuffs because they’re sleeping on the street will never solve this issue.
People experiencing homelessness have a higher chance of going to prison. This is evident in the number of people experiencing homelessness and imprisonment rates growing simultaneously. A study by the Australian institute of Criminology highlights the relationship between homelessness and imprisonment, finding nearly a quarter of detainees where experiencing homelessness or housing stress prior to arrest. Mead & Rankin (2018) outline laws criminalising homelessness, which bans forms of behaviour including sleeping in vehicles; standing around in public; and sitting or lying down in public. Punishing people for not having a fixed address funnels more vulnerable people into our criminal justice system, making the struggles of finding housing and employment even harder with a criminal record. Here starts the cycle: the high risk of homelessness post-release increases the risk of re-incarceration. Baldry et al (2006) found the relationship between re-incarceration and people experiencing homelessness is a combination of systematic failures that punish the most vulnerable people in our society, rather than assisting them. In other words, we are sending people to jail for experiencing homelessness.
To assist rather than punish our most vulnerable community members, it is imperative to address the root causes of homelessness: a lack of investment in public and affordable housing. Successive governments have failed to invest in affordable and public housing. People are left with no other option than sleeping in their cars, on their friends’ sofas, or on the streets as they wait amongst 82,000 other people for a home. Despite copious amounts of research, the Andrews government has not committed enough money and resources to end this housing and homelessness crisis. Instead, they’re lining their pockets selling off public housing dwellings to private companies. Decreasing the amount of public and affordable housing available will not stop people experiencing homelessness. It enables it. Furthermore, the so-called “linear model” to transition people into secure housing currently works against people experiencing homelessness. The linear model assumes people experiencing homelessness cannot sustain accommodation without ‘restoration and behavioural self regulation’. Individuals are unable to secure housing until they proceed through a series of separate residential and social services. A study by the University of York connected this approach to the ‘treatment first’ psychology, and has been criticised for high attrition rates. Without a base to eat, shower and sleep, gaining and keeping employment is practically impossible. With the job market as ludicrous as it is, no employer will hire someone who doesn’t look the part. This is another form of criminalisation towards people experiencing homelessness: individuals are draped with the stereotypes of homelessness, and have to prove themselves worthy of the basic human right of shelter.
But there is an alternative. The “housing first” model places individuals into secure housing, with independent tailored support services for their unique needs. The results speak for themselves: reports of housing retention are significantly better with the housing first model. More people are placed into secure housing, while simultaneously decriminalising people experiencing homelessness. As suggested by the University of York (2010), this model successfully challenges the widespread assumptions that “chronically homeless people with co-occurring mental health problems or substance dependencies are incapable of maintaining housing”. Clients also have the flexibility to choose when and which rehab programs to participate in. Engagement in these services is therefore significantly higher and ultimately more successful. Secure housing means less people sleeping rough, sleeping in their cars and couch surfing. This model has the potential to end the relationship between imprisonment and people experiencing homelessness. Removing vulnerable people from these insecure situations to permanent housing prevents the risk of people going to prison over a $652 fine.
Implementing the housing first model not only places people in secure homes, it helps debunk the myth that people who experience homelessness are criminals. However, to implement the Housing First model properly, the state government needs to reinvent our housing policy. We cannot continue the disastrous public housing renewal program, and neglect to build public housing. Most importantly, we need to stop adopting a heavy-handed approach to those experiencing homelessness. As this paper outlines, the criminalisation of homelessness only perpetuates a cycle of imprisonment and struggle. We need a system that supports the most vulnerable people in our society, not one that punishes them.
ABS, 2018 ‘Prisoners in Australia, 2018’, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4517.0
Baldry, E, McDonnell, D, Maplestone, P & Peeters, M 2006, ‘Ex-prisoners, Homelessness and the state in Australia’, The Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 1-14 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1375/acri.39.1.20
Davey, M & Knaus, C 2018 ‘Homelessness in Australia up 14% in 5 years, ABS says’, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/mar/14/homelessness-in-australia-up-14-in-five-years-abs-says
Kertesz, SG & Johnson, G 2017 ‘Housing First: Lessons from the United State and Challenges for Australia’, The Australian Economic Review, vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 220-228, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8462.12217
Mead, JW & Rankin, S 2018 ‘Why turning homelessness into a crime is cruel and costly’, https://theconversation.com/why-turning-homelessness-into-a-crime-is-cruel-and-costly-97290
Noonan, A 2017 ‘City of Melbourne to remove groups of homeless amid police crackdown on beggars’ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-26/melbourne-council-uses-new-protocol-to-remove-groups-of-homeless/8987608
Parliament of Victoria, 2018 ‘Inquiry into the Public Housing Renewal Program’, https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/SCLSI/Public_Housing_Renewal_Program/LSIC_58-11_PHRP_Text_WEB.pdf
Rankin, SK 2019 ‘Punishing Homelessness’, New criminal law review, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 1-29
Semerdjian, C 2018 ‘There’s no place like home: the housing crisis in Victoria and Homelessness’, https://www.blessingbagsmelbourne.com/single-post/2018/08/16/There%E2%80%99s-no-place-like-home-The-housing-Crisis-in-Victoria-and-Homelessness
University of York, 2010 ‘Staircases, Elevators and Cycles of Change ‘Housing First’ and Other Housing Models for Homeless People with Complex Support Needs’, https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/20498/staircases_elevators_and_cycles_of_change_es2010.pdf
Tran, D & Stayner, G 2018 ‘Victorian public housing waiting list at 82,000 and growing by 500 a month’, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-06/victorias-public-housing-waiting-list-growing-by-500-a-week/9837934