Here's why banning rough sleeping doesn't solve the problem of homelessness

We've used this image before, but it never stops haunting us: rough sleeping in London in 2010. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has announced a plan to ban sleeping rough in the city. Doyle did so last week amid significant pressure from both Victoria Police and the tabloid media.

When Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton called on the state government to extend police powers, Doyle at first seemed to reject the idea. But he later said he would propose a new bylaw to the city council.

Ashton claimed that the people living on Flinders Street are not really homeless, a suggestion echoed by Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi. They say new laws and powers are needed to “clean up the city”. Critics from the homelessness and community sectors argue this would effectively criminalise being homeless.

However, what exactly does this mean? And how would this differ from current strategies for governing homelessness in Melbourne?

My doctoral research, which examined how homelessness in regulated in Melbourne, found homelessness is already effectively criminalised and has been for some time.

Is being homeless a crime?

First, being homeless is not a criminal offence anywhere in Australia. If such a law were passed it would breach multiple long-standing legal principles. It would also breach various domestic and international charters and covenants on citizenship as well as human and civil rights.

Despite this, people experiencing homelessness, especially those who are highly visible, socially disruptive or who have complex needs, are frequently subject to systems of regulation and control that drag them into the criminal justice system.

For example, begging is outlawed in Victoria by the Summary Offences Act and carries a maximum sentence of 12 months’ imprisonment. While an individual is unlikely to be jailed for begging, they will likely receive a fine.

Unsurprisingly, people who engage in begging find it very difficult to pay these fines. When a person accrues enough of them, a warrant can be issued for their arrest. Challenging these fines accounts for the bulk of the work of specialist homeless legal services in Melbourne.

Beyond begging being outlawed, many other laws directly or indirectly target people experiencing homelessness. These include laws banning squeegeeing at traffic lights, camping in public space, drinking in public, being drunk and/or disorderly, using offensive language in public, besetting footpaths or entrances and indecent exposure.

For people experiencing homelessness, performing actions and behaviours that are necessary for survival frequently places them in breach of these laws. For example, going to the toilet may result in a charge of indecent exposure. Going to sleep may result in a charge of camping in or besetting public space.

Do these kinds of laws work?

In the past two decades many cities, states and countries have introduced new ways of regulating the homeless, particularly in the UK and US. The use of hostile architecture, for example, appears to be increasing.

Such strategies essentially bypass legal frameworks by embedding the “move-on power” into the architecture of public space itself. This leaves homeless people with fewer places to be. And it often renders them increasingly visible and thus more exposed to intervention by municipal officials or police.

Some US cities have passed laws banning all kinds of behaviours that the homeless may engage in and enforce these selectively. Some have even banned giving food to the homeless. This has led to police arresting and charging members of local churches and charity groups. In the most egregious examples, some cities round up anyone suspected of being homeless, pack them into buses and dump them in the hinterlands of another municipality.

Have these actions reduced rates of homelessness? No. Such laws may decrease the visibility of homelessness in some areas, but bans are ineffective when used against populations that have nowhere else to go.


What other options are there?

Where does or should responsibility for the homeless lie?

Justifying such laws are claims, like Ashton’s and Panahi’s, that these people have been offered accommodation and refused, revealing their homelessness as voluntary.

However, interpreting the choice to turn down temporary stop-gaps and band-aids in this way misses something crucial. If a person refuses temporary accommodation in order to demand more stable and supported accommodation, it is because they know such short-term solutions are not solutions at all.

Temporary housing simply results in people churning in and out of desperate situations. We must understand housing as being defined by its stability and relative permanence. Offering someone a month or two of accommodation is not the same as offering them housing.

Questions of who should take responsibility for the homeless inevitably arise from these situations. The most common answer to these questions are shouts of “Not me!” However, given the criminal justice systems — police, courts and corrections — are publicly funded institutions, choosing to criminalise these behaviours is choosing to take responsibility for those who perform them.

Importantly, research has shown that dealing with homelessness through punitive means is actually far more expensive than strategies that supply affordable housing and supported accommodation.

So whether we choose to help or punish, we are choosing to take responsibility for and invest resources in this persistent social problem. Why don’t we choose the option that is not only cheaper but kinder as well?The Conversation

James Petty is a researcher in criminology at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, and was co-published with Pursuit. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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