Melbourne, don't criminalise homelessness

16 February 2017
The City of Melbourne is proposing changes to its local law regarding rough sleeping in the CBD. This page explains the proposed changes and Justice Connect Homeless Law's concerns.

Proposed changes to the City of Melbourne's Local Law

The Melbourne City Council's Activities Local Law 2009 (Local Law) regulates the use of public space (among other things) in the City of Melbourne.

Since 2014, the number of people sleeping rough in the City of Melbourne has increased by 74% and there are approximately 247 people sleeping on Melbourne's streets. In response to this increase - and in the face of heavy negative media coverage throughout January 2017 - the City of Melbourne has proposed changes to the Local Law via the Activities (Public Amenity and Security) Local Law 2017.

Key aspects of the proposed changes are: 

  • Broadening the ban on campingBy removing the current reference to 'a vehicle, tent, caravan or any type of temporary or provisional form of accommodation', clause 2.8 will provide: 'Unless in accordance with a permit, a person must not camp in or on any public place'; and
  • Providing for confiscation and disposal of unattended items, as well as a fine of $250 for leaving items unattended. The proposed changes suggest a new clause 2.12 of the Local Law which would provide that a person must not leave any item unattended in a public place. If an item is left unattended, an authorised officer may confiscate and impound the item, and can sell, destroy, or give away the item if a fee or charge is not paid within 14 days.

The proposed changes were presented in a Committee Report on homelessness and public amenity to the Future Melbourne (Finance and Governance) Committee. At a meeting on 7 February 2017, the Committee endorsed the proposed changes and the City of Melbourne has now posted a notice of the proposed changes and is engaging in public consultation to understand if people agree or disagree with the proposed changes.

What could these changes mean?

The proposed ban on camping is extremely broad and, whether or not this is the intention, it effectively makes it an offence to sleep on the streets (noting that 'camp' is not defined).

The provisions regarding unattended items also have potential to impact harshly on rough sleepers,  including because of the inevitability that goods may be temporarily left (for example, while someone is getting food or using the toilet) and the requirement to pay a fee or charge to get belongings back.

Under part 14 of the Local Law, which is called 'enforcement', it is an offence to:

  • Fail to comply with the Local Law; 
  • Fail to do anything directed to be done under the Local Law;
  • Refuse or fail to obey directions of an authorised officer to leave a public place where in the opinion of that authorised officer the person has failed to comply or is failing to comply with the Local Law. 

Under the proposed amendments, a person would be failing to comply with the Local Law by 'camping' in or on any public place or leaving items unattended without a permit. These are offences and a person can be given an infringement notice for $250 (2.5 penalty units under a local law) or charged and brought before the Magistrates' Court. An authorised officer can also direct a person to leave a public place (i.e. can move someone on) and, if the person fails to do this, they can be fined or charged.

In addition to giving someone an infringement notice for $250 for leaving items unattended, authorised officers can confiscate the belongings and dispose of them if a fee or charge isn't paid within 14 days.

Homeless Law's concerns

Informed by 15 years of providing specialist legal services to people who are homeless or at risk of it, Homeless Law has significant concerns with the proposed changes. These include:

  • Impact on people who are experiencing homelessness. These laws risk pushing people to the edges of the city and isolating them further from services and supports. There is also a significant risk that people will get caught up in the justice system through fines (of $250) or charges.  Homeless Law already assists approximately 100 clients every year dealing with overwhelming fines and charges for 'public space offences'; we shouldn't be adding to these numbers. For a personal perspective on the experience of being fined or moved-on when you are experiencing homelessness, watch and listen to these stories, In the Public Eye: Personal Stories of Homelessness and Fines.  
  • Ineffectiveness. Tougher enforcement will not deliver the solutions the City of Melbourne or the community is seeking. The law doesn't solve homelessness, long-term housing with support does. Los Angeles had one of the world's toughest enforcement-based approaches to homelessness, including a ban on sitting, sleeping or lying on the sidewalk. They also had the highest concentration of people sleeping rough in the United States - approximately 5000 people in a 50 block area. It didn't work there and it won't work here.  
  • Challenges for the Council and authorised officers. The role of authorised officers is a difficult one, but increased enforcement powers won't make it easier. The pressure to use an enforcement-based approach to homelessness will reduce the ability of authorised officers to effectively engage with people sleeping rough. The laws also imply that the Council is responsible for solving homelessness when, in reality, significant efforts are needed from State and Federal Governments to address our homelessness crisis (including Victoria's public housing waiting list of 33,000 people).  
  • Unhelpful messaging that undermines the City of Melbourne's leadership role. The City of Melbourne has repeatedly reminded the community that 'it is not illegal to be homeless'. The proposed laws make it difficult to stand-by this important message and undermine the positive, constructive work the City of Melbourne otherwise does to effectively respond to homelessness.

To go down this path would be a damaging step in the wrong direction for Melbourne. At a time when we could be leading best-practice responses to homelessness, instead we are at risk of taking a path that has been recognised as punitive, expensive and ineffective. By way of example, the US Federal Government's Interagency Council on Homelessness has said:

... there is ample evidence that alternatives to criminalization policies can adequately balance the needs of all parties. Community residents, government agencies, businesses, and men and women who are experiencing homelessness are better served by solutions that do not marginalize people experiencing homelessness, but rather strike at the core factors contributing to homelessness.

What will happen next?

  • The Submissions Committee will make a recommendation about whether the Council should adopt the proposed amendments.
  • A further report from Council management will then be prepared and Councillors will vote on whether to adopt the proposed amendments.

Relevant resources

Our submission to the Future Melbourne Committee

In the Public Eye: Addressing the Negative Impact of Laws Regulating Public Space on People Experiencing Homelessness

Asking for Change: Calling for a more effective response to begging

We Can’t Arrest Our Way Out of the Homelessness Crisis | Huffington Post 

Joint statement from Council to Homeless Persons, Launch Housing, Melbourne City Mission, The Salvation Army, VincentCare and Justice Connect Homeless Law

Joint statement from CEOs of 36 Victorian homelessness, housing and social services organisations

Media release from the Law Institute of Victoria | Homelessness should not be criminialised