What to do about homelessness?

By Cr Richard Foster

Chair, City of Melbourne people portfolio

I celebrated when Melbourne topped the liveability rankings again in 2015, achieving top points from The Economist Intelligence Unit (ECIU). 

In short, it’s designed to tell global corporates where to base their international offices.  This is incredibly important to Melbourne but let’s not forget that winning the title does not of itself make Melbourne liveable for everyone.

The ECIU does not judge cities on how they treat the aged, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, so we have to wonder what the results would be like if they did.

The issue of homelessness is a complex one, but not so complex that we can’t try to understand some of its most common causes and effects. I’ll be brief.

The leading causes of homelessness are inadequately treated mental illness, drug and alcohol issues and domestic violence. Government resources in all these areas are sadly lacking, although the state government’s response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence will now increase support for victims.

One of the myths about homelessness is that all beggars are aggressive and raking in hundreds of dollars a day. It’s just not true. Sure, there are a small number of “professional” beggars just as a small number of them can be aggressive, but sensible Melburnians know they are a very small minority. To be clear, both these issues can, and should be, dealt with by police.

The stories I hear daily about those sleeping rough are confronting and distressing. I know of children as young as 10 who have been sleeping rough. I know of abhorrent physical abuse perpetrated on rough sleepers nightly. It is not something we can afford to ignore.

I know the visuality of the homeless problem is a bad look for Melbourne. It’s bad for business and it can be bad for residential amenity. I agree that we must act.

The number of rough sleepers in Melbourne is not as low as the Lord Mayor claimed in his Herald Sun opinion piece on May 12. According to the last City of Melbourne street count, it’s 142 and this was 50 per cent higher than the previous count two years earlier.

With the next street count due in just a couple of months, I don’t think we have any reason to suspect that the number has declined. But some local solutions are within our grasp.

To do nothing but seemingly endless media opportunities on the issue puts Melbourne into neutral, and possibly even into reverse. It also fails Melbourne’s rough sleepers, the businesses who rely on Melbourne’s image as a truly liveable city, our residents and visitors to the city we all love. The arms-in-the-air stagnation, saying that the problem is just too hard is failing us all.

This is a problem that we can’t arrest our way out of and recent police operations also aren’t as successful as the Lord Mayor claims. I’m told that 19 out of 26 alleged beggars either failed to attend court or failed to engage with service providers in the last operation. There are no shortage of examples of how the justice system is not the mechanism to treat social problems, so here is another one.

The welfare sector agrees that a local response to homelessness should be a commitment to crisis accommodation as well as medium and long-term transitional accommodation. Resources for long-term casework to back this up are also crucial to address an individual’s cause of homelessness, we know that broad brush strokes just don’t work.

I refuse to agree that people having to sleep on our streets is a way of life acceptable for rough sleepers, nor will I agree that this is the way forward for Melbourne. We can and should do better but it takes a genuine commitment to make Melbourne the world’s most liveable city not just for the large global corporates, but for everyone.

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