Sleeping Rough Justice

The councillors of our fair city gathered in their august chamber for their monthly meeting.

The mayor took his seat at the head of the table.

“Order, order!” shouted the Mayor. “Let there be order so that we can begin this meeting.” It would have been an appropriate time to bang a gavel but alas his mayoral accessories did not extend to a gavel.

The councillors, fresh from their summer vacations, began taking their places around the Council table. The same places they assumed at each meeting. Places determined by their length of service, their favour with the mayor and the amount of influence they wielded within the Council.

Directly opposite the mayor at the foot of the table, perhaps the position of least influence sat Councillor Finch. She was a recent addition to the Council. Her waif-like shape, close cropped hair and bright purple spectacles suggested she was perhaps a vegetarian, a greenie, a communist, certainly a cat lover.

Isn’t it bizarre how we judge each other by appearances! Finch did not fit any of these descriptions … except that she was a cat lover. She was a single mum, raising two children. She campaigned on a single issue namely what was to become of the community swimming pool.

“Well did anyone attend the tennis this year?” blurted out the Mayor. “”What a wonderful event! World class, world class.” he boasted. “Makes you proud to be a Melburnian.” At this, the room erupted into a clamour of smaller conversations.

And above the din spoke Councillor Brady. “Yes a wonderful event, and soon the footy and then the Grand Prix. Yes, such a great city. ” he preened.

But in the fugue of self congratulations, Councillor Baker, creasing his forehead and screwing up his lips, ejaculated “But the tennis was nearly ruined by those bloody homeless beggars. How dare they threatened to disrupt the Open! It’s unheard of.”

The room again broke into whispers between Councillors.

Brady spoke up again, “Something needs to be done about these people. We can’t have people sleeping rough in our city streets. It’s unsightly.”

Councillors looked at each other, some with raised eyebrows. The whispers and the gesticulating between them became more pronounced.

Some suggested that a committee be formed to investigate the issue, to consult with the community and relevant welfare groups and report back to the Council.

“This is an urgent problem” said the mayor “We do not have time for a committee.” and half the councillors, led by Brady, began nodding their heads in agreement.

“So what is to be done?” asked a voice that could not be identified above the mutterings and murmurings in the room.

“This is a crisis.” said the mayor, thinking of that gavel again. “And in a crisis, people expect their leaders to lead. And that is what I intend to do.”

This outburst, not unusual for the mayor, piqued the interest of the assembly.

Councillor Smith spoke up, “We should simply outlaw homelessness” he explained “We will pass a by-law that makes it illegal to sleep rough in the city’s streets. The police will clean up this problem in no time.”

“”Sir.” interrupted Finch “With respect, sir” she continued as all began to look in her direction. “Most people do not choose to be homeless. Most are forced into this situation through circumstances beyond their control…..”

“”Wait a minute.” now it was Brady’s turn to interrupt. “Councillor Finch, what do you know about the homeless? Don’t we have charities that offer accomodation to these beggars? Worthy and respectable charities. Why don’t these people get off the streets and take up the accommodation that’s available? Don’t these same charities tell us not to assist the homeless as it simply perpetuates their situation? So why can’t we simply criminalise this anti-social behaviour as suggested?”

“Please …” responded Finch, “I know as much about the homeless as any other councillor in this room, which is not a lot. I know that some of these people have mental health issues. They have been cast out of institutions with little or no support. Some are the victims of trauma, domestic violence, drug addiction and prostitution. Some do not trust these charities you mention because it was well meaning institutions such as hostels and orphanages and churches that damaged them in the first instance. In short the issue is complex and warrants a more thoughtful response.”

The room again erupted into discussions between Councillors.

“But we give them hotel vouchers so they can sleep in a proper bed and they refuse to use them.” stated one Councillor just barely audible above the noise in the chamber. “But those hotels are awful! I would not let my pet stay there a single night” volleyed another Councillor.

“”Why should we help these people who refuse to help themselves?” cried another Councillor.

“Refuse to help themselves or can’t help themselves?” retorted another.

“You heard the Police Commissioner this week. A lot of these people only pretend to be homeless so they can “shake down” the tourists that fill the city at this time of year. Despicable.” said another.

The debate continued. “Why is it that the government, all governments pour money into education and health but not homelessness? We don’t expect people to teach themselves or heal themselves but we somehow believe everyone is responsible for finding a home.” enquired another Councillor. “This is at a time of significantly diminished housing affordability, low availability of rental stock and high levels of migration into the city areas.” continued the councillor.

“They sleep in the city because they feel safe here. Better lighting. More police. More public transport officers. More people traffic.” interrupted another voice.

The Mayor was now growing impatient. He was losing control of proceedings. “Order, order” he exclaimed. “”I move a motion that this debate be concluded and the proposal to criminalise “sleeping rough” in the city be put to a vote. Those in favour?” And councillors began raising their hands around the table. “Those against the proposal?”

“”Wait one minute.” asserted Finch. “This is absurd. Homelessness is not a crime. People who sleep rough are not engaging in anti-social behaviour. These people have been overlooked if not rejected by society. You cannot outlaw homelessness just as you cannot outlaw depression or sadness or eating disorders.…..”

“Enough Councillor Finch!” asserted the mayor seeking to regain control of the meeting.

But Finch was determined.

“How do you propose to enforce this by-law?” she queried. “Will we fine people who have no money or assets? Will we fill our prisons with the homeless night after night after night. I guess prison is a home of sorts. Let them mix with the criminal elements. That will teach them! Or let’s move them on where they feel less safe and become an issue for another Council. Let’s add trauma to trauma because that is what they deserve!” spitting out her last words.

“”Enough!” shouted the Mayor as he slapped the table.

So what happened?

The above is a fictional account of the issues and submissions that have received media attention in the past few weeks. Criminalisation of sleeping rough was actually on the agenda. Camping in the city has been outlawed. Police have powers to confiscate certain belongings of homeless people.

Funny, how it takes an international sporting event to stir people into action.

To their credit the Melbourne City Council and State Government have announced a $9.8-million emergency response package to fund immediate housing for the city’s street homeless.

A strategy to address sleeping rough in the city will be developed after a survey of 250 homeless people is completed. Accommodation will be guaranteed for the homeless while other measures such as soup kitchens will be withdrawn in a measured but “tough love” approach.

Winter is approaching. Watch this space.

* Photos courtesy of The Age and ABC News