Homelessness and Human Rights

Caroline Adler If I were Attorney-General, I would grab the opportunity that the Government’s Homelessness White Paper presents to introduce legislative reforms to protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness.  I would not be deterred by the current global financial crisis, and I would build on the Prime Minister’s rhetoric around homelessness to convince my cabinet colleagues that tackling the issue of homelessness is increasingly urgent and long overdue.

Through this process, I would make myself available to hear the experiences and ideas of people experiencing homelessness and to try and comprehend the rights violations they experience on a daily basis.  I would listen to this group, who remain among the most marginalised and powerless in our country, and heed their words:

Our human rights don’t exist.  We are homeless and it (is) looked upon as our fault.  Sometimes it is, other times not, but if someone keeps falling should we pick them up or walk straight over them, which is what’s being going on too much. (participant in Homelessness Consumer Forum, June 2008)

On the basis of my consultation, I would move that a Federal Charter of Rights be introduced to try to counter the stigma, disadvantage and social exclusion that people homeless people experience everyday.  My discussions with people homeless people have taught me that a Charter of this kind has no meaning unless it incorporates economic, social and cultural rights.  Crucially, I would push for the right to adequate housing to be translated into legislation in Australia.

In addition to a Federal Charter of Rights, I would demand that a national Homelessness Act be introduced as a demonstration of my government’s commitment to the goal of ending homelessness in Australia.  This Homelessness Act would take a broad and holistic approach to solving homelessness through a human rights framework.  Where a Federal Charter of Rights failed to do so, this legislation would enshrine the right to adequate housing as it appears in international law.  In particular, it would provide for an enforceable right including a right to shelter and crisis accommodation as well as longer-term housing options.  It would also impose obligations on my government to realise peoples’ right to adequate housing and commit to a long-term and sustainable response to homelessness.

In addition to an overarching Homelessness Act, I would also move to implement a number of immediate legislative reforms necessary to ameliorate social and living conditions for people experiencing homelessness.  I would work with my state-based colleagues to try and ensure similar reforms were introduced in all state jurisdictions across Australia.

Regrettably, discrimination on the basis of a persons’ social status, particularly in the provision of accommodation and goods and services, remains an endemic problem across Australia.  I would use the important research and recommendations coming out of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act Review to demonstrate the need to outlaw discrimination on these bases at the Federal level.  Although the recommendations coming out of the Victoria Review refer to homelessness rather than social status more broadly, I would make the case that, at a Federal level, equal opportunity legislation must protect people against discrimination on the basis of their homelessness, their unemployment or their receipt of Centrelink benefits.  I would argue that, if my government is serious about ‘social inclusion’, this type of protection is a base level requirement, and then make sure that equal opportunity legislation is amended accordingly.

Working with my state-based counterparts, I would advocate for significant changes to state laws that impact in a negative or discriminatory way against people experiencing homelessness.  At the top of my list would the public space laws which came in for criticism by the then UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing who, after his official country visit to Australia in 2006, concluded that ‘laws such as begging laws, public drinking laws and public space laws, should be revised and amended to ensure that fundamental human rights are protected’.  These laws have the effect of criminalising poverty and homelessness and do nothing to address the root problems which relate to a critical lack of adequate income and housing for many Australians.

Finally, I would work to keep my government accountable to ensure that the White Paper we are about to publish moves beyond the rhetoric, recognises the rights of homeless people, and takes concrete legislative and funding steps towards the elimination of homelessness in Australia.

Caroline Adler is Manager of the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic.  The Clinic was conferred with the Australian Human Rights Law Award in 2005.