Alumna calls for greater focus on homelessness prevention

Enforcement-based responses to issues of homelessness and poverty are ineffective, says Lucy Adams (BA/LLB(Hons) 2005), Manager and Principle Lawyer of Justice Connect Homeless Law.

Speaking at an MLS Alumni Seminar on Tuesday 20 June, Ms Adams called on politicians and policy makers to direct efforts towards the prevention of homelessness and poverty.

“In the legal and homeless communities we see, day to day, the negative impact that the law can have on people experiencing homelessness,” Ms Adams said.

“A battle that is unwinnable is the battle where we continue to deploy the law and law enforcement to tackle homelessness and poverty in the community.”

Ms Adams drew on her experience at Justice Connect Homeless Law, a specialist legal service for Victorians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. A key component of the organisation’s work is to provide free advice to clients over fines for public space offences such as begging or fare evading on public transport.

“Homelessness makes it more likely that you will receive these fines, and much less likely that you can address them,” she said.

According to Ms Adams, proposed amendments to City of Melbourne by-laws that seek to make public sleeping an offence are an example of yet another enforcement-based response that will do little to tackle the broader issue of homelessness. If passed, the laws would only increase the number of fines being issued and serve to further disengage the already-vulnerable homeless community, Ms Adams said.

“A very real concern is that laws of this nature push people to the outskirts of the city and further isolate them,” she said.

“They become less engaged with services and ultimately worse off.”

Ms Adams instead urged policy makers to re-direct attention towards homelessness prevention through sustained and long-term investment in affordable housing. Drawing on research she conducted for her 2013 Churchill Fellowship, Ms Adams said that such approaches have the greatest capacity to stop homelessness before it starts.

She attributed the 74% increase in the number of people sleeping rough in the City of Melbourne since 2014 to rising rent prices and the recent closures of a number of caravan parks and other “last resort” accommodation options.

But while she believes that homelessness has reached “intolerable” levels in Victoria, she remains optimistic that the City of Melbourne can resume the leadership role that it has traditionally played in designing and delivering homelessness services.

“A battle that we can win is to use our legal frameworks and the protection of human rights to prevent homelessness,” she said.

“That is an area where the law can play a really effective role in tackling homelessness and poverty.”

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