A year after a media storm over homelessness in Melbourne, the city is finally starting to see what bad government policy sparked by sensationalism looks like, reports JessieAnne Gartlan.
Back in February last year, the City of Melbourne decided to target homeless people by redefining the term ‘camping’ in local by-laws. It led to what was effectively a ban on sleeping rough in the city.
The protests were immediate and sometimes violent, and attracted criticism from the public and the media alike.
News headlines used hard-line phrases, language that often hinted at violence, and people in positions of influence made statements that rough sleepers weren’t as badly off as the general public may think.
Melbourne’s rough sleepers are pretending to be homeless: Victoria’s top cop Graham Ashton – The Age, January 2017.
Despite the furore, the proposed policy change never went through. What did get through – in September 2017 – was a softer version of it, which was officially signed as a formal protocol after a trial-run of eight months. Melbourne City Council, Victoria Police and the State Government were all signatories.
The media headlines followed a similar theme after the new by-laws were announced:
City of Melbourne to remove groups of homeless people amid crackdown on beggars – ABC, September 2017.
Melbourne moves to clean up homeless – News.com. September, 2017.
The by-laws gave increased powers to police, on the instruction of council officers, to remove personal belongings deemed to be obstructing the enjoyment of public space, and then dispose of them. This includes camping equipment beyond a sleeping bag and pillow, and any furniture.
Police can also break up groups deemed to be too large, which are considered to be camps, loosely defined as four or more people. The phrasing used is as follows: homeless people will be ‘strongly discouraged’ from sleeping in close proximity to one another. Businesses and retail spaces must not be impacted in any way, which includes the blocking of entrance ways.
In a press conference in September Mayor of Melbourne City Council, Robert Doyle – now on leave from the Council amid sexual harassment allegations – said that Council had managed to house all of the original camp occupants, but their immediate replacement by another 20 people signalled that they needed to do something more.
These by-laws are that something more.
“It is fair to say that the difference today from January is that we are using our existing by-laws far more effectively, particularly around amenity and obstruction; we are very ably supported by Victoria Police if there is any aggression,” he said.
“I want people to know that if you ring the 9658 9658 number that rings you into the City of Melbourne, and you have a problem with someone who is homeless, either an encampment or aggressive behaviour, we have a priority queuing system and our compliance officers will respond immediately,” he said.
The language is couched in problem-solving terminology, law and order approaches, and the idea that a fast and firm resolution is what is needed. This language is not at odds with that used in media reports, giving rise to the question: just how much do the media stigmatize homelessness, and does this in turn influence policy?
La Trobe University lecturer Darran Stonehouse is completing a PhD in Australian homelessness policy and believes that the language used by the media does lead to further stigmatizing of homelessness.
“I think there is definitely a relationship there, between government and media. Government pay attention to what is in the media and what is being said. It is a gauge of what is in the public perception and how things will be perceived,” he said.
“I think when you’ve got headlines which are really quite demonizing and quite stigmatizing, which are really encouraging governments to be harsher, it becomes concerning that [City of] Melbourne was even considering the initial policy,” he said.
Mr Stonehouse believes that the by-laws are better than they could have been, and it appears that they have been received far better than the attempts made at the start of the year. But the ‘us and them’ approach is observable in the way the media reports on the issue, giving rise to further questions on Mr Stonehouse’s part.
“With rough sleepers are [government]really concerned about what to address, or is it just about getting rid of the public nuisance? I don’t think it’s that they don’t care at all, but it’s more a sense of not really understanding or wanting to accept the broad scope of the problem,” he said.
Kate Colvin, Council to Homeless Persons’ policy and strategic communications manager, agrees.
“Through this debate there has been a tendency by many in the media to talk about how ‘we’ve got to clean up the streets’, and what they mean is make all the people who are homeless just go away,” she said.
“That ignores the fact that people who are homeless are part of our community, and often have nowhere else to go.”
Ms Colvin said that media reporting around the time of the original protests appeared to impact on the way people who were sleeping rough were treated by the general public.
“Certainly in January, when there was a series of articles attacking people who were homeless in the Herald Sun, we heard a lot of feedback from homeless people that the level of casual abuse and incidents of assault increased,” she said.
“The derogatory and blaming language seems to empower people to do that; it normalizes that kind of language. People on the street are getting called scum and told to clear out, which is all the same language as is appearing in the newspaper,” she said.
Mr Stonehouse said the media struggles to express the nuance and complexity of the issue.
“There is a tendency to focus on one extreme or the other rather than unpacking the issues in a more nuanced way. I think if we’re going to address those broader issues of homelessness it’s not going to happen through the media, but obviously they can play a part,” he said.
“It is a very complex issue in that if we as a society are going to seriously try and fix the issue, it takes a whole lot more than what we are doing at the moment. But you do tend to see that simplistic stuff in the media and that doesn’t challenge people to think about the issue. Then people might see Doyle [discussing his policy approach]on the television, and say “well we have provided the housing, job is done’.”
Melbourne City Council was approached for further comment for this story but they declined to be interviewed.
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