By Khiara Elliott
At the February 7 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, the City of Melbourne voted to potentially expand the definition of camping for rough sleepers in the CBD.
Currently, it is only illegal to camp in a public place if structures such as tents are used. Under the proposed amendment, local law enforcement officers will be able to remove any unattended items left by homeless people to allegedly protect public safety.
The number of people angered by the proposed amendment was seen at the meeting, as it was moved to Swanston Hall to accommodate a larger crowd.
Protests condemning the proposed amendment occurred prior to the meeting as critics held banners branding it as a “Band-Aid solution” in front of Town Hall.
The high emotion continued inside with an outstanding number of submissions being presented to council.
Members of the homeless community, former councillors and representatives of organisations who work alongside the homeless and in some cases, alongside the council were united in their stance against the proposed amendment.
Acting CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons Kate Colvin, urged council not to put the homeless in danger by supporting the amended local law.
“The proposal to expand the definition of camping will cause considerable harm to people who are homeless. It’s just simply too broad,” she said.
“This is meant to be the world’s most liveable city, not the world’s most vulnerable to the people in need,” said homeless person Rebecca Temple.
Manager and principal lawyer of Justice Connect Lucy Adams, started her submission by commending the council on some of the collaborative projects conducted in the past in an effort to combat homelessness. However, she could not hide her aversion for the proposal.
“It is in that context of respect and collaboration that we must urge you to pause and not proceed any further with the proposed amendments this evening,” she said.
A request was made for a deaf interpreter to attend the meeting so that a deaf member of the homeless community could understand, however this was not met and no explanation was provided as to why – yet another stumble by the council in dealing with the homeless.
Interestingly, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle who had previously been quite vocal about his ever-changing stance on homelessness, remained relatively quiet throughout the proceedings.
The idea for the proposed amendment emerged in late January after chief commissioner of police Graham Ashton, called for a tougher approach on the homeless epidemic.
However, at the FMC meeting, despite there being a heavy police presence ready to act if tensions boiled over, not a single submission was made by a Victoria Police spokesperson. This was noted by Cr Rohan Leppert who voted against the amendment.
“I would have liked to have seen some written communication from the police as to why they believe their powers are not adequate to deal with this problem already. I know this is a council solution, not a police solution but I still think that would have helped this debate,” he said.
Perhaps the most embarrassing falter of the night was Tessa Sullivan’s attempt to assure submitters and those in attendance that council was losing sleep over the homeless problem, before likening the danger of rough sleeping to that of terrorism.
“I want to reiterate that this is about public safety and the very real fear that we have in the world we live in today that it is dangerous to leave unattended items,” she said.
“We’ve debated this. We’ve lost sleep over it. I mean, we’re human beings too. We agonise over this. What is happening in our streets is heartbreaking,” she said.
Cr Sullivan’s comments were met with jeers from the audience which felt she was likening possessions of homeless people to pose the same threat as items used in acts of terrorism.
The proposed amendment was released for 28 days of public consultation, but not before Cr Leppert successfully persuaded his colleagues to include an extra control on council.
His amendment directs management draft a policy which ensures that local law enforcers are accompanied by homelessness support workers when enforcing the law.
This is perhaps the amendment’s one saving grace, and a small victory if it is even appropriate to label it as such.