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Fines for homeless flawed

The City of Wodonga’s recent proposal to impose $100 fines for camping or sleeping in public spaces, as outlined in Section 35.1 of the Draft Environment and Community Protection Local Law 1/2024, demands a serious reevaluation.

This punitive response to homelessness, while presumably intended to discourage rough sleeping, is not only likely ineffective but may also worsen the very issue it aims to resolve. 

2021 Census data showed that over 200 individuals in Wodonga were experiencing homelessness, a figure likely to be significantly higher in 2023 with rising living costs and a severe shortage of affordable rental housing.

Evidence from both Australian and international contexts strongly indicates that punitive measures, such as fining individuals for camping or sleeping rough, are ineffective in deterring these activities.

Far from resolving the issue, such actions can exacerbate the challenges the homeless face. This is because fines impose additional financial burdens on individuals who are already struggling to meet basic needs, effectively deepening their poverty. When individuals are fined and are unable to pay, this can lead to a cycle of escalating penalties and legal complications, further entrenching them into a state of homelessness.

Punitive approaches overlook the primary reasons why individuals are forced into homelessness. Homelessness is often the result of a complex interplay of factors, including affordable housing shortages, unemployment or underemployment, mental health issues, family violence, poverty, and a lack of support networks. By imposing fines, the focus shifts from addressing these underlying causes to penalising the visible symptoms of homelessness.

The marginalisation of people experiencing homelessness intensifies as a result of such policies. Being fined can lead to a sense of alienation and social exclusion, diminishing the likelihood that individuals will seek or receive help from social services. This further isolation can make it more challenging for them to access the resources and support necessary for securing stable housing.

Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that supportive interventions, such as housing-first strategies, are more pragmatic, cost-effective, and beneficial for all stakeholders, than punitive measures, as evidenced by Homelessness Australia and the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute studies.

A Justice Connect Homeless Law’s submission to the City of Melbourne in 2017 highlighted how fines for public space offences disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, exacerbating their difficulties instead of providing relief. These penalties, the submission argued, entrenched people experiencing homelessness further into the justice system, lacking any preventative effect.

This approach is also at odds with international findings, particularly from the United States, where similar strategies have failed to reduce homelessness and instead heightened marginalisation.

Rather than relying on short-term, punitive measures, the City of Wodonga’s focus should be on advocating for and increasing the stock of affordable, accessible housing.

By prioritising the development of social housing, Wodonga can uphold the dignity and rights of its community members and lay the groundwork for long-term solutions to homelessness. Wodonga’s strategies and policies need to reflect a comprehensive understanding of the issue and a commitment to sustainable change that will benefit the entire community.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – “Homelessness and homelessness services”:
AIHW Report

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – “Health of people experiencing homelessness”:
AIHW Report

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – “Australia’s welfare 2023: data insights”:
AIHW Report

Justice Connect Homeless Law reports and submissions:
Justice Connect Homeless Law Page

Vera Institute of Justice:
How the US criminalises homelessness