Fining the Homeless for Begging

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Homeless begger

This is something that should shock you: In most States and Territories across Australia it’s illegal to beg for money.

If a homeless person is caught begging in South Australia, they’ll face an on-the-spot fine of $250, regardless of circumstances. In Melbourne, some advocacy services have reported homeless clients racking up fines as large as $50,000 for begging.

“Begging is broadly illegal for a number of reasons. Vagrancy, as it used to be called, was punishable, but in reality what it meant was that people who were poor could be taken off the streets and effectively be fed,” Bill Potts, the President of Queensland Law Society, said when interviewed recently on The Project.

“What’s the point of [the fines], it merely adds to their misery – and effectively ends up in a cycle of poverty, and unfortunately incarceration,” continued Potts.

Budget Cuts to Homeless Services See Numbers Skyrocket

Since the 2014 Budget saw funding to homeless services slashed around Australia, the number of people sleeping rough has skyrocketed. Last year, South Australia recorded its highest rate of homeless arrests and reports reach a five-year high. Across the country, 120,000 people were turned away from homeless shelters, now unable to finance enough beds to let them stay for the night.

In Darlinghurst, a clinic that helps 1,200 homeless people each year announced this week that it will be forced to close in April if it can’t find funding. The Haymarket Clinic lost $900,000 in annual funding in the Federal Government’s 2014-15 Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, and has been unable to raise replacement funding.

According to the latest Street Count figures, a twice-a-year count of the City of Sydney’s homeless population, the number of people sleeping rough in the inner-city has hit an all-time high of 486. The Count also revealed that crisis hostels in the area are operating at capacity, with 98 per cent of beds occupied.

Being Homeless in New South Wales

Thankfully, New South Wales, alongside Western Australia and the ACT, is one of the few states that doesn’t actively fine people for being homeless. However, there are still a large number of laws and regulations that disproportionately punish the State’s homeless.

The recent expansion of Alcohol Free Zones in the City of Sydney, and elsewhere across the State, has been criticised for targeting low-income groups.

With the average price of a beer in a city bar about $7 a schooner, people need somewhere else to have fun and unwind. Taking away their alcohol in a park significantly reduces the amenity of that park for them.

Some believe alcohol free zones have the ulterior motive of giving police and Council rangers the power to target anyone they don’t like the look of, and getting ‘undesirables’ out of the area by prohibiting the use of alcohol and, in the case of police, using ‘move on’ powers.

There are also growing reports that private security guards hired by the Council have been involved in a campaign of intimidation against the residents of Belmore park’s tent city.

In July last year, 55 tents inhabited by homeless people covered Belmore Park, the City of Sydney Council confirmed. Today there are fewer than a dozen.

“Hundreds of people have been moved on to some other place, God knows where. They’ve just vanished,” Reverend Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation said.

Belmore Park resident Jacob Sie, who has lived under a sheet of plastic in the park for the last five months, recently told the ABC that the Council had been clearing out the Park’s residents.

“If no one has been in their tent for like say two or three days then they put a notice on the tent,” Mr Sie said.

“Council just comes with a big truck and that and the tents get all ripped down.”

Other measures such as: the introduction of motion lighting in the undercover areas near the State Library; metal spikes on sitting areas near Central station; and alterations to CBD train stations that lock off bathrooms to those without a ticket; go to show the lengths being taken to remove basic amenities for the city’s homeless population.

To their credit, Councillors of the City of Sydney have shown genuine concern for helping assist the city’s growing homeless population, providing funding for services and working through Sydney’s Homelessness Unit.

However, without a broader consensus on how to best tackle the issue, and increased funding for services around the country, their efforts are just a drop in a very large ocean.

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Kieran Adair

Kieran Adair

Kieran Adair is the previous Deputy Editor of City Hub. He has written for the Huffington Post, Guardian Australia and South Sydney Herald. He has a passion for social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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