I Believe in Human Rights: An Australian Perspective

In Victoria, Australia, there are more than 22,000 people experiencing homelessness. More than 1,000 of these people sleep on the streets and others stay in refuges, rooming houses, transitional accommodation, in their cars or on other people’s couches. Across the entire country of Australia, there are more than 105,000 people experiencing homelessness, which is the equivalent of one in every 200 Australians.  

Justice Connect Homeless Law (formerly the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic) helps about 200 people experiencing homelessness each year with tickets or charges they’ve received for “public space offences,” including things like having an open container of liquor in public, begging (or panhandling), being drunk in a public place, littering, and conduct on public transport (e.g. not paying to travel, smoking on the platform or having your feet on the seat). It seems obvious to say that if you’re experiencing homelessness, you’re more likely to get these tickets because you’re carrying out your private life in a public place. Homelessness also makes it incredibly hard to deal with the tickets either through payment or navigating the unwieldy legal process. A ticket for being drunk in a public place, for example, is about $600.

The reason we talk about assisting 200 clients every year is to highlight that the current system has a harsh and heavy impact on Victorians experiencing homelessness, and also to identify the burden that the current system imposes on legal services that assist clients with these matters. As is often the case in this field, our arguments for reform are pragmatic positions based on evidence and cost effectiveness. While there is undoubtedly a role for these arguments – the legal and policy mechanisms that criminalize homelessness impose a burden on courts, enforcement agencies and services that assist homeless clients – we must be careful not to lose sight of the personal impact these systems have on individuals.

With this in mind, in mid-2013, Homeless Law worked on a project called "In the Public Eye – personal stories of homelessness and fines."  Through short films, photographs and audio recordings, Anthony, Richard, Emma, Darren, Hamish*, and Julia* spoke about being homeless and living in the public eye. They spoke about being targeted by enforcement officers and the feeling of worthlessness that this brings with it. 

These candid personal insights remind us that each of the 200 clients we work with every year has a personal story about what pushed them into homelessness; about their experience of being homeless and getting caught up in the justice system; and about how this impacted on their lives.  Anthony said:

"Being homeless and living on the streets, whatever self-confidence I had was just wiped.  People look at you totally different. Most of the times you actually don’t get looked at as a human being and the impact that had on myself was then I would actually believe it and believe I wasn’t actually worthy of just general help and at times I didn’t even think I was worthy of having a roof over my head." 

This is why we need human rights.  Human rights protect all of us.  They remind us of our common humanity, which we seem to forget too often.  Laws and practices that criminalize homelessness and punish people for their disadvantage are a human rights issue. They’re an issue of, amongst other things, discrimination and inequality, inadequate living standards, a lack of adequate housing and risks to people’s security and liberty. These are concepts we’re all familiar with but they sometimes seem abstract until you hear real people’s stories.  

It’s these stories – the personal interactions with the folks that bear the brunt of criminalization laws and policies – that remind us why this work is important. It’s easy to forget the very obvious point that human rights are about humans. They’re about people. They protect all of us and they have a significant role to play in making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. 

Lucy Adams is the Manager and Principal Lawyer at Justice Connect Homeless Law, a free legal service for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Melbourne, Australia.  She is currently undertaking a Churchill Fellowship: ‘In the Public Eye: Addressing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness’.  Her reflections and observations from her research in the US, Canada and Europe are available at: www.inthepubliceyeblog.wordpress.com  

* Names have been changed