Homelessness is a troubling social issue concerning the number of people who are homeless. These people are unanchored and detached from society with minimal stability or security. Importantly, homelessness is more than not having a house; it’s also about not having safety or a sense of belonging. The majority of homeless people do not sleep on the street. Yet, those who find refuge at shop door fronts or on park benches are the ones that inform society’s vision of homelessness. This vision tends to view homeless people as nuisances in public spaces. As a result, Australian cities have adopted laws and physical impediments that attempt to limit the presence of homeless people in our communities. These attempts, however, are often discriminatory and fail to address the root causes of our homelessness epidemic.
Homelessness is a fluid concept
Due to stigma and miseducation, the public definition of homelessness is founded on the damaging stereotype ‘mad, bad and on the streets.’ From a historical perspective, the 20th century saw the criminalisation of vagrants (people who wander aimlessly without a job). Perhaps this social outlawing never ended. Negative social stereotypes of homelessness usually do not match reality. Homelessness is more likely to be the cause of mental illness and drug addiction than its result. On the face of it, you pose a more significant threat to a homeless person than they do to you.
It is better to understand homelessness as a manifestation of various forms of vulnerability. These include poverty, isolation, lack of support and lack of an adequate social safety net are all factors that leave individuals exposed and vulnerable to homelessness. In other words, there is a multitude of ways one can experience homelessness. As a result, statistics are increasingly unable to provide an accurate snapshot of Australia’s situation.
Homelessness in Australia
The Australian homelessness problem is growing. According to the most recent census (2016), over 116,000 people were experiencing homelessness. However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggest that the actual figures are likely to be much more than this.
In April-June 2020, homelessness in Australia was reduced temporarily as a result of COVID-19 measures. But many of those who were hotel-housed have since returned to the streets.
Unfortunately, Australian governments continue to overlook or downplay the fundamental flaws in our housing systems. They also fail to acknowledge that the causes of homelessness are varied, ranging from unaffordable housing to domestic abuse and mental illness. As a result, the root structural causes behind mass homelessness are left unaddressed.
Types of homelessness
Being homeless doesn’t always mean sleeping on the streets. As indicated by the table below, only 8,200 out of the total 116,427 homeless population are ‘rough sleepers.’ While most images of homelessness that are available to the public exhibit people on the street, a far greater proportion of them live in other people’s houses or crowded dwellings.
The origins of homelessness – Australia’s First Nations people
The concept of homelessness dates back to European colonisation and a disturbance of the original collective order. The arrival of Europeans forcefully introduced Western conceptions of place, order, property and ownership. Australia’s First Nations people were dispossessed and stripped of their land. They were forced into this category of homelessness on a vast scale, and their country was no longer recognised as their home. Property and ownership are Western concepts that were non-existent among Australia’s First Nations people. In other words, ‘home’ has a different meaning for Indigenous Australians, who perceive all land as an interconnected home united through deep spiritual connections.
Paul Memmott’s (2014) research has identified a feature of homelessness that is unique to Indigenous Australians – ‘spiritual homelessness’ – defined as:
‘A/separation from traditional lands, b/ separation from family and kinship, c/ crisis of personal identity wherein one’s understanding or family and aboriginal identity systems and knowledge of how one relates to country is confused.’
In the colonial context, First Nations Australians have been homeless for hundreds of years and continue to be as they experience an ongoing estrangement from their land, culture and ancestral voice.
What causes homelessness?
Both agential and structural factors cause homelessness. It is a product of the individual’s interactions with various structural forces where agency and choice operate within a constrained scope of options. For instance, structures of inequality and poverty limit someone’s ability to find a job.
While stereotypes often suggest that homelessness results from bad individual choices (for example, drug abuse), the causes are significantly broader than this. In Australia, domestic violence is the single biggest cause of homelessness. Other risk factors include unemployment (a huge factor during the COVID-19 pandemic), mental illness, sexual assault, addiction and social isolation.
‘Criminal’ behaviours associated with homelessness
While being homeless in itself is not a crime, certain actions (often associated with it) are explicitly outlawed by society.
Squatting is staying in an unused property for an extended time. This action constitutes a large proportion of homeless people who are not living on the street. Although not a crime itself, squatting can give rise to other charges such as trespass and damage to property.
Since the 60s, radical protest movements have formulated Australia’s charged history with squatting. In 2008, a group of Melbourne University students squatted in empty university-owned houses in Faraday St to highlight the plight of homeless students. In 2009, the Supreme Court gave Melbourne University the right to evict the squatters and reclaim the houses.
‘Professional beggars’ are not homeless but retain a lifestyle of begging to make cash. Criminologist Dr Chang told ABC Radio Melbourne, ‘where there’s money, there’s a crime.’ In Victoria, this form of begging is illegal. And on a global scale, the act is becoming increasingly criminalised. Issues arise because it’s difficult to know whether they are real beggars or fake beggars. When someone is caught illegally begging, they are often given fines that merely solidify their homeless position.
Eliminating beggars from the streets is fuelled by a desire to ‘clean up’ the streets. Visible homelessness is considered unsavoury for the community. Instead of helping or addressing the root causes of homelessness, our city leaders adopt a punitive approach to move these people out of sight.
The Activities Local Laws 2009 cl 2. 11 prohibits camping without a permit. The police used this law to authorise the eviction of Occupy Melbourne protestors. In 2017, the City of Melbourne tried to extend the legal definition of camping, broadening its reach to criminalise the vulnerable.
Being ‘too visible’
Building on the stereotypes associated with visible homelessness, people often hold assumptions about homeless people and social disorders. In other words, there is an unspoken belief that homelessness is associated with high crime rates. Sadly, however, this association focuses on the homeless person’s criminal tendency rather than their victimisation or vulnerable situation. Most calls to the council about homeless people are about the requested removal of the person from the site, rather than about their wellbeing.
Despite our cities being public spaces, there are assumptions about who has the right to exist in these spaces. These rights are primarily reserved for consumers, workers and tourists. Where do homeless people fit into this picture? It seems that there is an attempt to protect public space’s aesthetic and atmosphere from those unable to contribute to society financially.
Increased expansion of summary offences that target homelessness
The Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) expansion meant more infringement notices for minor crimes like public drunkenness. While non-homeless people have the private sphere of their home to drink, homeless people are often confined to public spaces; the public is their home. Consequently, in Victoria, homeless people are unfairly implicated in these petty crimes and are repeatedly fined as a result. But when these people cannot afford to pay the fines, they become embroiled in the criminal justice system, a system that only exacerbates the risk factors of homelessness.
Other laws which target people experiencing homelessness include:
- Begging and camping in public (mentioned above).
- Using offensive language in public.
- Besetting footpaths or entrances and indecent exposure.
Doing things that are necessary for survival can prompt a breach of these laws. For instance, a homeless person going to the toilet in a public space (because they don’t have access to a bathroom) could be charged with indecent exposure. Even going to sleep could result in a charge for camping or besetting public space.
Laws penalise our most disadvantaged community members and trap them in a process that requires intensive resource commitment from legal and community services. Meanwhile, there are minimal efforts to assist individuals in recovering or addressing the underlying causes of their offending.
Ultimately, while being homeless is not a crime, those who are highly visible on the streets or have complex needs are regularly subject to systems of regulation and control that pull them into the criminal justice system.
Through written rules, Australian law criminalises homelessness. But perhaps more insidiously, vulnerable people are isolated through the city’s physical implementation of ‘hostile architecture.’
‘…an urban-design strategy that uses elements of the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behaviour. It often targets people who use or rely on public space more than others, such as young people and homeless people, by restricting the physical behaviours they can engage in’.
This architectural strategy used to ‘cleanse public space’ goes almost undetected. Benches with large protruding metal armrests might look like separate sections for different people to sit in. However, the design’s purpose is to render it difficult for people to sleep on them.
Similarly, metal bars have replaced benches at many bus stops, and spikes protrude from raised surfaces to prevent anyone from lying down.
Professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne Kim Dovey says:
‘If cities want to stop people sleeping out on the streets . . . they should provide more accommodation and effective solutions, not make it more difficult for desperate people . . . You may push people to sleep in more dangerous situations and places where they could be assaulted.’
Adding to this, Dovey emphasised the fundamental meaning of public space:
‘My view is public space is public space and people have the right to use it in whatever way they choose. Otherwise, it’s not really public space at all.’
Young people’s experience with homelessness in Australia
According to the National Network for Youth, homelessness as an unaided youth can stem from the horrors of sexual assault, victimization, substance abuse, deteriorating mental health issues, and barriers to education that turn into obstacles to employment and housing.
Homeless youth living in public spaces experience high levels of police intervention and surveillance. Daily experiences of harassment – including verbal abuse and derogatory comments – compound young people’s experience of homelessness.
Negative interactions with the police often erode any positive perceptions and trust. Consequently, there is limited willingness to access police protection; the police are a powerful source of fear for these homeless youth. Aggravating this, the Victorian Government enacted legislation that strengthens police powers to search and move on individuals in public space. These powers are found in the Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment Act 2009 (Vic), and the Control of Weapons Amendment Bill 2010 (Vic). These ‘move on powers’ used by the police means homeless people have fewer places to exist. As a result, they have become increasingly visible in public spaces and more exposed to intervention by the police.
Ultimately, although these young people are unanchored to a home, invasive social surveillance perpetually binds them to a new tightly regimented space. It’s important to tackle the root causes of homelessness rather than criminalising it and simply dismissing it from the eye’s view. These problems burden society with the immense cost of finding ways to take care of these youth.
You can read about one young person’s experience with homelessness here.
An anthropological perspective on homelessness
In our pluralistic society, people from different subcultures behave differently from the rules and assumptions entrenched in mainstream Anglo culture. However, many of us struggle to see past the atypical behaviours and positions of certain people. We fail to consider the deep-rooted cultural frameworks that solidify homeless people in these socially outcasted positions.
An anthropological perspective on homelessness challenges society’s dominant vision of homeless people as mere drug abusers and street sleepers. Instead, it invites us to consider the multitude of complex factors that create such a situation. In addition, it interrogates how our society creates structures that condemn and isolate homeless people, both literally through hostile architecture and legislation and intangibly through negative social perceptions.
Relegating these people to the whims of society in a band-aid fix process merely exasperates the problem. An anthropological perspective can provide a different (and deeper) lens through which to understand homelessness and mental illness.