How do we solve a problem like rough sleeping?
I am fortunate enough to live in Melbourne, considered by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London the most liveable city in the world. Due, in no small part I suspect, to its great coffee and café culture, but also to its healthcare, education, stability, culture, environment, and infrastructure. On the EIU, it scored an incredible 97.5 out of 100. As a resident, I can attest to it’s being a fine place to live.
Yet, from my vantage point at the Salvation Army in the centre of the city, I am all too aware that Melbourne isn’t a great place for all its residents. One of our significant challenges is the increase in the number of people sleeping rough. According to the Melbourne City Council, rough sleeping has increased by 74 percent over the last two years. This represents 247 individuals, most aged between 26 and 60. Most are there due to housing non-affordability, mental health, or an addiction.
Melbourne is not unique in Victoria for its rough sleepers; rough sleepers are present in all our major towns and suburbs. It is unique, however, in its level of infrastructure which draws people seeking housing and support. So, like Dick Whittington, searching for streets paved with gold, the homeless, the ill, the abused come looking for support, propelled by a spectrum of problems leading to having nowhere else to go.
This increased presence of rough sleepers has drawn increased government and media attention – in some instances, quite frankly, not at all helpful to agencies such as ours have been trying to support and assist this most vulnerable group. Along with increased attention has been a call for solutions, some excellent, others not helpful.
The call for the criminalisation of rough sleepers is extremely counter-productive, leading to vulnerable people being driven underground, rather than remaining visible where support can be offered. A great majority of rough sleepers are themselves victims of crime, and the calls to criminalise further stigmatise street homeless people, and penalise them for simply being poor.
The plethora of support agencies, council, and government responses have helped as well as hindered this cohort. Differing agendas, targets, and attitudes have meant that many rough sleepers have failed to obtain the housing and medical support they need to make a sustainable return to mainstream society.
New state-wide responses
Until recently, there has been a lack of political appetite and bureaucratic capacity for a coordinated approach to rough sleeping. However, the creation of the Rough Sleeping Task Force has finally been translated into a practical , which will work towards a state-wide solution, rather than to a Melbourne city-specific approach.
Rough sleepers form one of the most disadvantaged groups in society. They deserve better than to be treated as a nuisance. They may have suffered relationship breakdown, bereavement, or domestic abuse. Instead, people need long-term, dedicated support in order to move away from the streets for good. Those who sleep on the streets are extremely vulnerable, and often do not know where to turn for help.
These individuals need increased support to leave homelessness behind, and any move to criminalise sleeping rough could simply create additional problems. If we are to tackle current housing and health inequalities, we need to assess and meet the needs of the homeless in new and imaginative ways. It is a broad overarching response which is required to take into account health as well as housing needs. The response needs to be undertaken with mainstream providers ensuring effective partnerships across many and varied services.
Misfortune could leave any of us homeless
It also requires a response from individuals – our awareness that each one of us is just one step away from homelessness – in the literal sense as we walk around our own towns and cities past rough sleepers, and in the theoretical sense. We could suffer job loss, illness, financial setback, or a combination of these. We could end up sleeping rough; anyone who is on the street is certainly a lot worse off than me. I look them in the eye. I say hello. When I acknowledge them, they are no longer invisible.
Major Jenny Begent is Divisional Social Program Secretary of the Salvation Army Melbourne, and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.