A year ago, the tent city established by homeless people in Sydney’s Martin Place was cleared. Ahead of a Big Thinking Forum marking the event we asked UTS Faculty of Law academic Dr Thalia Anthony to share her perspective on criminalisation of homelessness, an issue she is researching ...
Debates about homelessness often presume a clear division between two types of (housed) people: those who pretend they can’t see a homeless person when they walk past, and those who reach out because of a sense of human obligation to help.
The task then becomes a charitable one: increasing help among passers-by – the public at large – or determining the best ways to distribute charitable funds.
While this raises important moral and ethical questions, it lacks a critique of the paucity of affordable private housing and accessible public housing, and it fails to engage with the politics of income distribution and inadequate wages (yes, many homeless people work).
The nature of such debates also precludes a consideration of not simply the needs of homeless people but also the threats they face. A key concern for the wellbeing of homeless people is maintaining their safety and avoiding injury.
A mounting threat to the safety and security of homeless people are the police powers, criminal offences, bail requirements and penalties that disproportionately place homeless people within the realm of the criminal justice system.
A year ago Martin Place in the Sydney CBD was a focal point for debates about homelessness, where the rhetoric of charity was dangerously utilised to deny justice.
Directed at the optics of the “the homeless camp” in Martin Place, the NSW Government claimed the site needed to be cleared because homeless people deserved proper services and accommodation rather than a stop-gap measure (as provided by the camp).
The NSW Government then swiftly enacted the Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Act 2017 to give police greater powers to disperse the homeless residents of the tent camp in Martin Place and in the nearby areas of Belmore Park and Wentworth Park.
It was reported at the time that this approach would not channel the residents of the camps into long-term housing or support but was a strategy of dispersal and a violation of human rights.
This response to Martin Place is part of a broader nexus between the homelesss and the criminal justice system.
On the one hand, people released from prison often don’t have the resources to find housing and end up in a cycle of homelessness and incarceration. On the other hand, the visibility of homeless adults and young people puts them in the purview of the police.
Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to policing for acts of begging, stealing, fare evasion, and offensive behaviour and language. As a result, public disorder offences in the city of Sydney are becoming among the highest in the country.
In addition, in recent years the growth of infringement or penalty notices has widened the net of criminality for homeless people. Police impose fines on homeless people at disproportionate and increasing rates, particularly for public nuisance/offensive behaviour, begging, public urination and fare evasion.
Human dignity and connection can inform our will to give and to help homeless people, but our sense of justice must inform our response to laws that criminalise homeless people.
Ultimately, bringing both concerns together might be the solution: less money spent on criminalising homeless people will open up more money for housing them with dignity.
The next UTS Big Thinking Forum will consider the issue of homelessness. Find out more and RSVP here. You can provide your thoughts on homelessness via our questionnaire and follow this topic on the evening of August 21 via Twitter and #utsideas.