By David Schout
Calls from legal groups to decriminalise begging have been opposed by Victoria Police, who warned it could not regulate “professional beggars” in the CBD without the law.
As part of a recently-released parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s homelessness, legal groups argued that begging offences caused vulnerable people to be unnecessarily caught within the justice system.
In submissions to the wide-ranging inquiry, legal services group Justice Connect argued the criminalisation of begging “punishes vulnerable people experiencing extreme hardship”.
“Studies continue to show how begging, homelessness, ill-health and substance dependence regularly intersect,” the submission read.
“The strong conclusion is that begging is about social and financial poverty, not about crime.”
Fellow group Inner Melbourne Community Legal said prosecuting begging, which is only an offence in Victoria and not other states, was both “ineffective and fails to achieve any public interest objectives”.
But in response, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Timothy Hansen said organised or “professional begging”, which arose as a media story in 2019, could not be sufficiently regulated if the offence was repealed.
“[Professional begging] really does cloud the discussions that might be had at a point in time about the decriminalisation of elements of the Summary Offences Act 1966,” he said.
“This is of significant concern for police. It requires significant hours and resources to investigate, and it does have a negative impact on the amenity of the CBD area and absolutely has our attention.”
In July 2019, Victoria Police arrested seven people as part of an alleged professional begging syndicate in the CBD.
At the time, police said members of the syndicate had been flown in on tourist visas and had posed as rough sleepers in busy city areas.
Assistant Commissioner Hansen, who spoke at a September 9 hearing as part of the Inquiry into homelessness in Victoria, said the problem arose “quite regularly”, and was difficult to police.
He said Victoria Police was aware of the calls to decriminalise begging, but on balance it would make enforcement too difficult.
“There has certainly been a paper that has previously been shared with us about the decriminalisation of begging or decriminalising passive begging,” he said.
“For us to try and differentiate between (professional and passive begging) would become really, really difficult, and I think you would end up with an unintended consequence, where we would probably be unable to enforce either element of that.”
Further, when asked if police would prefer the law remain, Assistant Commissioner Hansen said that while officers were pushed towards “diversionary and caution outcomes”, it was a “a tool in our kit belt”.
“If done well and if done with the support of legislation, [it] starts to give us a real opportunity to divert people back into the health centre but with a carrot-and-stick approach.”
The parliamentary committee concluded it was “regrettable” that people experiencing homelessness were charged for begging, and said reform should be considered.
“In the committee’s view, the government should consider whether to amend the Summary Offences Act 1966 to remove begging as an offence.”
In 2015, the Salvation Army released a report that small numbers of professional beggars were earning up to $400 a day within the CBD.
A survey for the report found the majority of 135 people begging were in genuine need, while nine were not homeless and saw the activity as a way to make a living.
CBD remains homelessness centre
The Inquiry into Homelessness held 18 public hearings and received more than 450 formal submissions.
A 504-page report included a number of key findings, and tabled 51 recommendations.
Chief among the findings were that the state government needed to pay “immediate and ongoing attention” to what had become an “urgent homelessness crisis”.
It also found that overwhelmingly, those experiencing homelessness still gravitated towards the CBD.
In 2019, stats revealed that 3116 people in the CBD searched for housing services via online homelessness search tool Ask Izzy, which was almost 15 times more people than the number of those those searching in the second-highest postcode (212 in Dandenong).
“Research suggests that people sleeping rough and unable to resolve their homelessness gravitate to central Melbourne over time from suburban and non-metropolitan locations,” the City of Melbourne’s submission noted.
Reason Party leader and inquiry chair Fiona Patten told CBD News that it was vital those within the CBD received support services “as early as we can”.
“Early intervention means identifying those at risk of homelessness and stepping in to provide support before they reach a crisis point,” she said.
“Many gravitate towards the CBD and surrounds when they first experience homelessness so if we know that – we should concentrate services towards them.”
Rough sleepers a “key priority”
The City of Melbourne noted a rise in rough sleepers in recent years via census and biennial StreetCount data.
The submission noted that reducing rough sleepers within the municipality remained a “key priority”.
Rough sleepers are those who live on the streets, sleep in parks, or squat in derelict buildings or other improvised shelters.
“Rough sleeping is the most visible expression of homelessness,” the submission read.
“The scale of rough sleeping in our city has been steadily increasing and is symptomatic of issues in the broader system.”
As part of its COVID-19 response, the state government provided $6 million of additional funding for temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness.
Around 4500 Victorians without homes were placed in motels and hotels, and “nearly all rough sleepers in Melbourne’s CBD” were placed in accommodation.
This program, however, is due to expire in April.
Ms Patten said the homelessness issue was incredibly complex and the committee had done its best to summarise the key aspects of the issue.
“As much as I would like to say that we did an inquiry and ‘fixed it’ – we didn’t. What we have done, however, is look behind the curtain of the myriad of services and complex issues that are behind homelessness, and assess some of the key issues at the core of what is a continuing problem.”
The committee called for an immediate and permanent increased rate of JobSeeker, as well as other relevant income support payments such as Youth Allowance.
“Insufficient Commonwealth income support is clearly one of the leading issues preventing individuals from sustaining long-term housing,” Ms Patten said.
The committee also found that an increased provision of “affordable, stable, long-term housing” was vital going forward.
In November, the state government announced a historic $5.3 billion Big Housing Build which included 9300 new social housing homes, which will increase Victoria’s social housing stock by 10 per cent.
However, the increase still does not ensure the state meets the national average of social housing as a percentage of total dwellings (4.5 per cent).
As a potential solution, the committee suggested mandatory inclusionary zoning, whereby all new major developments would be compelled to include a certain percentage of affordable housing.
“Homelessness is a solvable problem, we know what needs to be done, we just need the will to carry it out,” Ms Patten said •