Illustration by Wendy Fox

We can end homelessness, if we want to.

This year, Paper Giant had the opportunity to work with a community health organisation to co-design a booklet with people ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets in Melbourne. The first of its kind, this was a booklet produced by rough sleepers, for rough sleepers, to help them know their rights, access support, and stay safe when sleeping on the street.

The fact that this project had to exist at all makes me seethe with anger. Why should anyone need to sleep on the street in a society as rich as ours? 

In Australia anyway, our COVID-19 response has revealed just how easy it is to end rough sleeping – a little bit of resource allocation, a roof and a bed, and funded social support for those in need. 

What does this demonstrate? That we had the solution here in front of our noses all along. Why must it take a worldwide pandemic and economic shock to make it possible? 

Think about all the police time and public money wasted on moving on, ticketing, arresting and jailing rough sleepers, when we could have been helping people all along.

Locking up people sleeping on the street does nothing to prevent homelessness at all. It makes it worse, in fact – it’s well known that contact with the criminal justice systems leads to more contact with the criminal justice system. Helping people experiencing homelessness, on the other hand, creates a fairer, kinder, more just, and yes – safer – society.

When we position ‘policing’ as the solution to problems of inequality, we reinforce the idea that these problems can’t be prevented, only mitigated.

Now think of some of the other things we ask police to do. 

Are heavily armed, uniformed officers with minimal mediation training the best people to observe protests, ensure traffic safety, respond to mental health emergencies, negotiate arguments between neighbors, respond to noise complaints, and enforce civil law violations?

Police are forced to take on the work of paramedics, nurses, mental health workers, social workers, government administrators and teachers, while these professions are stripped of funding. Even when it comes to classic crime investigation – why do we need people with guns to interview victims, write reports and investigate the details of a burglary well after the fact? 

There may still be situations where a ‘first responder’ to an unfolding act of violence is required. But this is not the bulk of police work, either in Australia or around the world. 

If you bristle at the current calls to ‘defund the police’, understand that it is really about resource allocation. As a society we are constantly making decisions to fund some things and not others. It’s about what we choose to prioritise, and why. Funding policing of social ills rather than community-led solutions to these ills is in direct conflict with a progressive vision for our society.

Why not take some of the money we spend on enforcement and incarceration and spend it on vibrant, caring communities, so that enforcement and the carceral state is no longer necessary?

The response to COVID-19 has made it very clear that we have the opportunity and resources to end rough sleeping forever. We have always had this opportunity.

What else could we end if we decided to do so?

–– Dr Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #60 here