Homelessness and Human Rights: It’s Time to Act

I was delighted to hear that my colleagues on the House Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth recently reported on the need for a new piece of legislation, responding to homelessness in Australia. People experiencing homelessness will continue to be the subject of human rights violations unless my Government enacts a Federal Homelessness Act, which builds on the existing legislative framework in the Supported Accommodation and Assistance Act and extends the right to adequate housing to all Australians.  I take this opportunity to commit to the introduction of such legislation.

The Committee’s report considered the detailed reasoning around the benefits of framing homeless services within a human rights-based approach.  Such an approach provides real, demonstrative benefits for government, consumers and services alike, and my cabinet colleagues are slowly warming to the idea of a human rights-based approach to government policies and practice.

However, such an approach requires a legislative framework to guide practices and policies, and I will work with both sides of the House to implement real legislative change that will shift the governmental and cultural response to homelessness.  (Somewhat naively perhaps, I would like to think that bipartisanship will be a feature of my tenure as Attorney-General, and of our Government’s lasting legacy in this place!)  In that vein, the introduction of a Human Rights Act is a key priority in my Government’s agenda, and one that I am proactively and energetically pursuing.

An important component of our newly-embraced human rights approach is the participation and empowerment of people within the community.  As Attorney-General, I will ensure that my colleagues and I are able to hear the experiences and ideas of people experiencing homelessness and to try and comprehend the barriers to social inclusion that they experience on a daily basis.

One of the violations that I keep hearing about is the discrimination faced by people experiencing homelessness.  The people I have been consulting with repeatedly and consistently tell me that discrimination on the basis of a persons’ social status, particularly in the provision of accommodation and goods and services, remains a daily occurrence for many vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians.  I will enact comprehensive equality legislation to, among other things, protect people against discrimination on the basis of their homelessness, their unemployment or their receipt of Centrelink benefits.  My Government is serious about social inclusion, and simple protections against discrimination are ‘easy wins’ that we can implement today, that will have lasting and positive effects.

Public and private housing in Australia is unaffordable, inadequate and there is not enough to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalised.  While not strictly falling within my portfolio responsibilities, as Attorney-General I have a responsibility to advocate for the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in our community.  I am also fully aware that that the legal system operates within the broader social and economic context of our society.  As homelessness rates continue to grow (despite governments’ best efforts), the reality is that we need more housing stock to ensure that people are able to put a roof over their heads and start to address entrenched disadvantage, focusing on the needs of the individual.  In leading jurisdictions, this approach to addressing homelessness is called ‘Housing First’ and recognises the interdependence of access to adequate housing, social inclusion and economic participation.

The complex nature of homelessness and the need for individual tailored responses calls for a whole-of-government approach. However, I think that it is important that this whole-of-government approach is also adopted when developing broader legislative and policy frameworks.

There are a number of areas in which disadvantage is perpetuated through inappropriate criminal justice responses to particular acts or behaviors which criminalize poverty and disadvantage.  Examples of criminalised behaviors that would better be dealt with under an integrated whole-of-government approach include begging and a range of public space ‘offences’.  To my mind, these wrongs demand a public policy response that addresses complex social and economic causes (including lack of access to housing, income support, education and health services), and a coordinated holistic, integrated, multi-agency approach to addressing individual and systemic disadvantage.

Working with the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, we will contextualise and characterise these issues as social issues rather than criminal issues, and encourage all layers of government to respond accordingly.  Criminalising poverty and disadvantage, or criminalising behaviors or acts that will have a disproportionate effect on people experiencing poverty and disadvantage, is just not on.

When announcing the Green Paper on Homelessness on 26 January 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made the following comment:

It [homelessness] is something which you can either push to one side and sweep under the carpet or you can say, ‘Actually this is just dead wrong, we need to do something about it’.  We don’t believe it is something which a country as wealthy as ours in the 21st century can just ignore.

In introducing a new Homelessness Act (and a Human Rights Act), a rights-based approach across government and dealing with wrongful discrimination and criminalisation of impoverished and disadvantaged Australians, my Government has the opportunity to respond to homelessness as a human rights issue.  To do anything else is just dead wrong – not only do we need to do something about it, we will.

James Farrell is Manager of the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic