When you put it like that, I feel like an idiot as I sit here in my nice warm home, with our cat near my feet, and the rain coming down in torrents outside. Being homeless sounds fantastic. I’m going to head outside right now and never come back, and there is nothing anyone or any thing can do to stop me.
Oh wait, there is lots of things that can stop me. Most of them are called ‘the law’ and I can safely say that the law takes a very strong, some would say downright brutal, approach to dealing with homelessness and the homeless.
Given the large, and growing, number of homeless people in Australia, you might hope the law would be focussed on protecting the homeless and giving them the chance to move into proper accommodation, or at least deal with the homeless in a relatively fair and respectful way. Even if you take a dim view on the homeless, you would still expect the law to be directed towards protecting the public, businesses, and outdoor spaces from the safety and health issues that homelessness can cause, rather than punishing people for being homeless.
Unfortunately, the law is not so elegant, nor so fair. Legal rights and homelessness are not compatible, and almost all laws in this area are designed to punish the homeless.
The core issue is that there is no legal right to a home in Australia. Rather, having a home is seen as a privilege. Once you manage to have a home, whether through owning or renting it, you get a lot of legal protections and benefits under our laws.
For those who cannot, or will not, rent or own a home, the law is much less helpful. While many local, state, and national bodies and government departments have, as one of their supposed responsibilities, the aim of providing housing and shelter for those who would not be able to afford it or obtain it otherwise, it is a sad fact of our modern society that many people simply cannot afford to live in a home. For them, the laws on housing are at best useless, and at worst a way of keeping the homeless from receiving proper care and shelter.
To make matters worse for the homeless, the laws in each state and territory are inconsistent. That means that the homeless in, say, Victoria have a harder time (if that is even possible) than those in New South Wales.
In Victoria, there are laws that make begging a criminal offence, punishable by up to twelve months’ imprisonment (as at the time I am writing this). There is a similar offence for begging in Queensland, but hey, you only get six months’ imprisonment if found guilty of begging there. In South Australia, you cop a $250 on-the-spot fine for begging. There is a $500 on-the-spot fine for begging in the Northern Territory.
The law in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, and Western Australia might frown on begging, but it is not illegal in those places. Yet.
If you can’t legally beg in most states and territories, then that really only leaves New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, and Western Australia where it might be feasible to be homeless, from a strictly legal point of view. However, begging is not the only illegal activity that the homeless commit simply by being homeless.
In all states and territories, the following typical characteristics or behaviours of the homeless are illegal. Ready?
⁃ Sleeping in public spaces? Illegal.
⁃ Stealing food, drink, money, or medicine? Illegal.
⁃ Using public transport without paying the fare? Illegal.
⁃ Loitering? Illegal if the person loitering is said to be intimidating or obstructive (whether this is, in fact, true or not is a very debatable question).
⁃ Urinating or defecating in public? Illegal.
⁃ Bathing or showering in public (including using a public bathroom to do so)? Illegal.
⁃ Breaking into a building, whether abandoned or not, to sleep or stay? Illegal.
⁃ Drinking alcohol in public? Illegal.
⁃ Public drunkenness and violence? Illegal.
⁃ Voting? Legal (finally, something the homeless do have a right to do), but only if the homeless person makes an application to the Electoral Commissioner (for Federal elections) or the equivalent state- or territory-based commissioner (for state, territory, and local elections). I cannot see the homeless doing this in any significant numbers, even if they were aware that they had this right.
As I mentioned earlier, once someone becomes homeless, the law makes it very difficult for them to re-enter private shelter, at least without significant government assistance or the help of a non-profit or religious body.
All states and territories have laws that permit various housing agencies, and real estate agents, to keep records of good and bad tenants. Real estate agents and landlords can access these records and share them with home owners who want to rent out their property to a prospective tenant. A homeless person trying to get rental accommodation is likely to either have no rental history, or a bad tenancy record due to missed rental payments in the past. The result is that real estate agents and landlords, relying on these tenancy records, might reject any application that a homeless person makes for rental accommodation, and the laws in this area do nothing to encourage a more flexible or compassionate review of the homeless person’s application or their potential to be a good, long term, tenant.
Federal welfare payment laws discriminate against the homeless too. To receive welfare benefits, a person must produce some form of identification document, and details of a permanent home address. This is clearly an issue if you are homeless and have very little in the way of physical possessions, let alone one hundred points of photographic ID and a permanent address.
In the end, as I sit here in my beautiful home, with my amazing wife reading a book on the couch near me, I am grateful. No, more than that, I am incredibly grateful and very, very lucky. I never want to be homeless. Answering your question has given me a renewed sense of sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, face the constant threat of arrest or fines because they are homeless.