The Penalisation of People Living in Poverty

By James Farrell | 29 May 11

Each week, teams of lawyers around the country visit soup kitchens, crisis shelters and other welfare agencies to provide advice and assistance to some of the 105,000 Australians who experience homelessness every night. While we can’t always find them a roof, we can help them address some of the other barriers they face.

The reality is that people are penalised for living in poverty in Australia.

Take Rob, who is homeless and has major kidney problems. Rob tried to access a dialysis machine, but was unable to borrow one. Instead, he has to travel for an hour on public transport every third day to come to a hospital (where he feels as though he’s treated rudely) for his treatment, then spend another hour on public transport to get back to his marginal accommodation.

Deb’s homeless ex-husband used to stay at her house one night a week to spend some time with their daughter. Centrelink cut off Deb’s parenting payment, as they deemed that she and her husband were in a “marriage-like relationship”. We were forced to use legal action to reinstate her rights.

The reality is that people are penalised for living in poverty in Australia.

We’ve had a number of clients who live in rooming houses call us over the past couple of years because they’ve been evicted into homelessness. The most common reason being that the property they’re living in can be renovated and sold to people who can afford to buy in the trendy inner-suburbs. One of them was Kristy. We couldn’t help Kristy stay in her home but we were able to find somewhere for her to stay while she tried to find some long-term accommodation, which is difficult given our current housing affordability crisis.

When our lawyers first started this program in Melbourne ten years ago, we met Dan, who had been living on the streets for years. Because Dan didn’t have anywhere safe to call home, he’d hang around Flinders Street Station, sometimes having a drink with his friends and generally without a train ticket. Dan had accumulated over $100,000 worth of fines because he was punished for being homeless.

Recently I attended an expert research workshop in Geneva with the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP). The ICHRP is examining the penalisation of people living in poverty, and will inform a report to the United Nations General Assembly later this year.

As the only Australian attendee, I listened to stories from Kenya, India, Canada, Argentina, the USA, Brazil, South Africa and others and was shocked by many of the stories people were telling. I wasn’t shocked by the impacts of poverty on people in these far-off places; I was shocked by how much of it reflected the experiences of the people we work with every day in Melbourne and around Victoria.

The aim of the ICHRP project is to identify and combat the increasing tendency to penalise people living in extreme poverty around the world through criminal and non-criminal measures. The four key themes that we explored included:

  • penalising poverty through criminal and non-criminal measures: the impact of laws, regulations, or practices that penalise or criminalise the use of public spaces or other behaviours and actions of people who are homeless, lack adequate housing or live and work on the streets/public spaces (Dan).
  • governance of urban spaces and urban planning: laws, regulations and practices with respect to zoning, urban beautification and redevelopment have considerable impacts on the redevelopment of land occupied by poor people (Kristy).
  • public health: focusing on ways public health policies may disproportionately impact persons living in poverty, especially measures such as restrictions on freedom of movement, forced treatment, involuntary institutionalization and surveillance (Rob).
  • governance and policing of welfare: developments in the governance and administration of welfare measures and institutions that disproportionately affect people in poverty, especially their liberty, dignity and privacy (Deb).

We think that we live in the lucky country, and generally we do. But in Australia, like many other parts of the world, people living in poverty face tremendous penalties.

The Australian Council of Social Services defines poverty as follows:

“Poverty is a relative concept used to describe the people in a society that cannot afford the essentials that most people take for granted. While many Australians juggle payments of bills, people living in poverty have to make difficult choices – such as skipping a meal to pay for a child’s textbooks.”

In Australia, the term “poverty” refers to those whose living standards fall below an overall community standard. People living in poverty not only have low levels of income; they also miss out on opportunities and resources that most take for granted, such as adequate health and dental care, housing, education, employment opportunities, food and recreation.

In Australia, like many other parts of the world, people living in poverty face tremendous penalties.

Part of understanding this issue relates to income poverty and the significant difference between income support payments (pensions, unemployment payments, youth/student payments) and the Henderson Poverty Line. The poverty line measures how much individuals and families require to cover essential living costs. In 2008 the National Welfare Rights Network identified that a single unemployed adult received benefits at 26 per cent below the poverty line and an independent student was paid at approximately 38 per cent below.

But understanding poverty should not be restricted to consideration of income. It’s hard to disagree with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has said that “poverty erodes or nullifies economic and social rights such as the right to health, adequate housing, food and safe water, and the right to education. The same is true of civil and political rights such as the right to a fair trial, political participation and security of the person.” In other words, being poor affects everything, and we see this every day with the people we assist.

The United Nations defines poverty by adopting a “capability approach” which essentially considers the well-being of an individual and their ability to “do or be” certain things. In addition to the concept of “inadequate command over economic resources”, this approach also involves the identification of “certain basic capabilities that would be common to all – for example, being adequately nourished, being adequately clothed and sheltered, preventable morbidity, taking part in the life of a community, and being able to appear in public with dignity.”

An understanding of poverty must address health, shelter, public participation, human dignity and income. But most of all, an understanding of poverty demands that we do not punish people like Dan, Deb, Kristy and Rob simply for being poor.

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

Names have been changed.