On December 6, 2006 Mitch Moseley, a 23-year-old homeless man, was bludgeoned to death as he slept near Sydney’s Town Hall. Moseley was killed in the course of a robbery. He had won about $2,000 on the poker machines that night. His killer followed him out of the last hotel where he was gambling and mugged him. Moseley’s murderer is now behind bars for at least 13 years.
It is, of course, not out of the ordinary for anyone to be robbed in a large city like Sydney. But for people who are homeless, violence is an integral part of their lives. The average homeless person lives in environments where he or she is frequently vulnerable to violence and resulting injury or death.
Australia has about 100,000 homeless people. They are divided into the following statistical categories: the primary homeless (who live in the streets, in parks or other public places); the secondary homeless (those in refuges or temporarily in private accommodation); and the tertiary homeless who have boarding house accommodation. People who live in caravan parks are considered “marginally housed”. However, given the tenuous nature of caravan park living - with park owners succumbing to the temptations offered by developers and selling up - they don’t have much more security than boarding house residents.
There are no real safe havens for the homeless. Mitch Moseley and countless victims of crime who are homeless have suffered violent deaths in public areas. Homeless refuges are often no refuge at all - you might have a roof over your head for a couple of nights but that is no protection against being bashed in the head (or worse). Boarding houses are not much of an improvement on 19th century Dickensian squalor. Oliver Twist would not feel out of place. They are often so unsafe that homeless people would rather sleep out. Homeless people have literally nowhere to hide.
The statistics alone are horrifying. Research (PDF 1.34MB) by Tim Newburn and Paul Rock, in 2005, in Britain revealed 52 per cent of homeless people had experienced violence in the past year compared with 4 per cent of the wider population. Sixty-seven per cent of homeless people had their possessions stolen in contrast with 1.4 per cent of the general public.
In the US, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) compares (PDF 1.83MB) the number of homicides classified as hate crimes (that is, motivated by racial, ethnic or religious prejudice and so on - but not homelessness) with fatal attacks on homeless people (based on FBI data) across all states and territories. From 1999 to 2008 there were 94 fatal hate crimes. In the same period, 242 homeless people were murdered. In the same report, the NCH states that these killings and the non-lethal attacks against another 636 victims who happened to be homeless were the work of “housed individuals”. If the murders of homeless people by other homeless people were included, it would certainly add to the death toll considerably.
For homeless people, the price of survival is eternal vigilance. Researchers Suzanne Hatty, Nanette Davis and Stuart Burke quote one young woman living on the streets of inner Sydney who said that the most dangerous situation for her is going to sleep not knowing if she’ll wake up the next morning. Others alleged being bashed by the police. To avoid the perils of homelessness requires much energy and constant movement.
A typical homeless person may end up on the streets because of domestic violence. Violence on the streets then drives that person to seek shelter in a homeless refuge. But there is no escape from the violence there. So it’s back out on the streets and then maybe accommodation in a boarding house. But there is danger there as well so it’s time to hit the road again. Moreover, waiting for a bus or train travel at night is also a risky business. If the homeless person manages to avoid gangs and muggers, harassment by police and railway security is quite likely (as is the risk of physical violence by uniformed officials).
Obviously there is no easy solution. It’s difficult enough to combat crimes of violence against people who are housed. When a homeless person suffers violence the obstacles to justice are many and seemingly insurmountable. Mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of affordable accommodation all contribute to creating homelessness. These factors also play a part in normalising violence.
Hatty, Davis and Burke found that 65 per cent of young women interviewed for their research had been physically abused within their families. Violence on the streets is not a novel experience for these young women. They say nothing to the police for fear of ostracism or retribution by other homeless people. They may believe they have no rights as a homeless person, have little self-worth and don’t feel entitled to justice.
There are legal services tailored to the needs of homeless people. For instance, in New South Wales the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service operates in various locations in metropolitan Sydney. Legal Aid NSW, the state government legal service, assists those who can’t afford a private solicitor as do community legal centres. However, these services cannot reduce violent crime against homeless people because they cannot reduce homelessness.
The Australian Government’s homelessness green paper, The Road Home, is an attempt to scope the problem of homelessness and work towards a solution. If all the government reforms proposed in the paper are implemented, the homelessness crisis in Australia would be greatly ameliorated. One weakness of the green paper is that while it recognises violence as a cause of homelessness it overlooks violence against homeless people as a problem in itself and a factor in perpetuating homelessness. Nonetheless, it is a positive start.
Ideally, non-government organisations working with homeless people will collaborate with governments at all levels (as well as the police and justice system) to build on initiatives such as The Road Home. Violence against homeless people is a violation of human rights and it’s high time it was treated as such.