Opportunity for government to end cycle between criminalisation and homelessness

18 May 2021

On 4 March 2021, the Victorian Government tabled the Final Report from Victoria’s first-ever Inquiry into Homelessness. In the face of rising housing insecurity during and after COVID-19, this report provides 51 timely recommendations that, if adopted by the Victorian Government, could create an effective and lasting response to homelessness.

By addressing the intersection between legal issues, homelessness and housing insecurity, the Victorian Government has a unique opportunity to reset the legal and policy landscape in relation to homelessness and genuinely create real change.

As Victoria’s specialist free legal service for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, Justice Connect has spent 20 years holistically helping Victorians with poverty-related fines and charges, and we know that enforcement-based responses to homelessness don’t work. Relying on the justice system to respond to homelessness entrenches disadvantage, compounds homelessness and creates a further burden on an already stretched justice system.

Using evidence from our frontline work, including our Courting Justice project that helps people experiencing homelessness with criminal justice issues, we have continued to advocate to stop the criminalisation of homelessness as evidenced by our campaign in 2017 to stop the City of Melbourne from introducing new laws that would effectively criminalise homelessness, and our ongoing campaign to decriminalise begging.

We welcomed the Inquiry’s recommendations that aim to reduce justice-system interactions, and to improve housing security, health and other long-term outcomes for people experiencing homelessness, many of which directly reflected our own evidence and recommendations including:

1) Implementing a Protocol for enforcement agencies engaging with people experiencing homelessness

Justice Connect, in collaboration with homelessness, justice, government and other agencies, has been working to revive the 2006 Protocol for Homeless People in Public Places, which was implemented for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. This updated proposed protocol aims to facilitate a consistent, constructive approach to homelessness.

The Proposed Victorian Protocol is a high-level policy document that allows for discretion and agency-specific implementation, providing a framework and guidance for enforcement officers making difficult decisions in complex situations. It is designed to be used as a tool by enforcement officers to assist them in exercising their discretion in a way that reduces unnecessary, enforcement-based interactions and prevents people experiencing homelessness entering the justice system when their needs could be more appropriately dealt with by health, housing and other support services.

2) Retaining the Special Circumstances List at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court

The Special Circumstances List (SC List) at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court provided highly marginalised people with a therapeutic setting to help appropriately address their infringements. For over a decade, the SC List has allowed Magistrates to carefully consider each person’s circumstances, including family violence, drug and alcohol dependence, homelessness, mental health issues and intellectual impairment when determining sentencing outcomes. The list functions to effectively provide fair, efficient and rehabilitative sentencing outcomes for marginalised people.

While the Inquiry recommended investigating the need for retaining the SC List, we view the ongoing operation of the SC List as essential for the most marginalised people who have fines, as it helps Victorians to divert out of the criminal justice system with long-term outcomes that address the underlying systemic reasons for their homelessness.

3) Providing additional transitional housing, access to housing and legal support for people exiting prison to ensure that people can access and maintain stable, long-term housing 

The latest Australian survey of prisoner health indicates that 33% were experiencing homelessness prior to incarceration and over half of prisoners expect to be homeless on release. Notably, 57% percent of our Closing the Revolving Door Prison Project clients in the last 12 months had previously experienced homelessness. For people in prison who experience complex barriers and problems, maintaining or accessing housing with supports is fundamental to their well-being and long-term reintegration into the community.

Integrated legal services play a critical role in sustaining housing and removing barriers to reintegration. We know that unresolved legal issues can often increase people’s disadvantage upon release into the community. While some support services and programs exist for post-release prisoners for non-legal needs, there are by comparison far fewer avenues of support for legal needs, and more are required.

We welcome the Inquiry’s recognition of both access to housing and legal support as critical components in ensuring that people can access and maintain long-term housing post-release.

For more detail, read our:

  • Evidence-based position paper that we submitted to Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness, which shared stories and insights from 47 former clients
  • Evidence given at the Inquiry
  • Response to the Inquiry’s final report