Though down on my luck, I kept up my pluck | Thinking justice might temper the laws. | But the farce has been played, and the Government aid | Ain’t extended to squatters, old son.
– Banjo Patterson, The Broken Down Squatter
It’s early February in Melbourne and police are guarding the footpath. Dozens of them. A yellow fence cordons off the empty bluestone pavement alongside the iconic, century-old facade of Flinders Street Station, which is scheduled for renovation. It’s afternoon. Bystanders are gathering in the hundreds now, spilling onto the asphalt.
But they’re not who the fence is for.
Maybe a dozen people have been sleeping rough here for weeks. Behind the cordon are scattered remnants of their residency. A shoe. A water bottle. A floral pillow. A cardboard sign: #WHEREDOWESLEEPTONIGHT. They are men, women, young, middle-aged, Australian-born, refugees, able-bodied, and struggling with disabilities. They’ve camped together for community and security. They picked this spot strategically: it’s close to running water and toilets; charity vans bring food and mobile showers to St Paul’s Cathedral, a block away; drop-in centres and clinics are nearby; and, maybe most importantly, they are in the public eye. It’s safer to be visible. But moreover, the public is a resource. For food, supplies and cash, but, just as importantly, for community, conversation and recognition. Indeed, the very definition of ‘public’ implies a commons. As the philosopher Henri Lefebvre suggested, the city is just such a common good—produced and consumed collectively. That’s why they’re here.
But, like many of the 250 or so Melburnians sleeping rough in the CBD, they’ve been told to move on. They’ve been offered three days’ crisis accommodation (along with the odd bedbug bite). After that, their options are rooming houses (exploitatively expensive, and often dangerous and decrepit), years on a waiting list for public housing, or the streets again. They’ve chosen to stay at Flinders Street for as long as possible. That’s why the police are here. It’s also why supporters from the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria are here in solidarity. In tomorrow’s papers, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle will call this a ‘running sore’ of protest.
Worse for them, in the following week the City of Melbourne will vote in bylaws that make it illegal to sleep rough or leave possessions unattended. According to the Activities Local Law 2017, if they unroll a swag or put their bags down to use the toilet, they risk a fine of $250 or more. Victorian Police Chief Graham Ashton, who requested the bylaws, defends them with an accusation that these campers are not only ‘pretending’ to be homeless but are a ‘disgusting’ sight and a deterrent to the crowds visiting Melbourne today for the Australian Open.
Aside from being spurious—as a conversation with the campers demonstrates—Ashton’s comments are telling. They outline the competing interests at work. Like any commons, the city street is subject to endless struggle among stakeholders. (Tennis-goers. Rough sleepers. Police. And so on.) Indeed, councils across the United States have long employed comparable bans on sleeping, sitting, begging, urinating and sharing food, in what’s often characterised as ‘taking back the city’ from homeless bodies. In following suit, the City of Melbourne is wrestling with age-old questions: Who has a right to public space? For what purposes?
But the terrain of struggle is changing. The Australian city is being remade by new global configurations of stakeholders, from real-estate speculators to refugees. Melbourne’s rough-sleeping ban formalises this renewed struggle. It must be seen as a sign of the times, one that will be heeded by cities around the country with parallel struggles and aspirations. It remains to be seen who will have a right to the twenty-first century Australian city.
Beneath the Southern Cross | and the canopy of the rainforest along the riverbank | the kuril, which still survives here | dug out its nest, and left its tracks.
– Lilla Watson, Kurilpa Country
It’s late October in Brisbane and the heat is radiating up from the concrete. A kilometre from the CBD, through the murky tangle of the Brisbane River and the gash of the motorway, sits Kurilpa Peninsula. Connecting the two sites is the Kurilpa Bridge: an architectural marvel, award winning, a signpost in Brisbane’s rush toward the global. The bridge bears a cosmopolitan family resemblance to developments across the metropolis, part of Brisbane’s blueprint for a ‘new world city’. At its southern end, the bridge meets Kurilpa Point Park, an open patch of grass with a scattering of barbecues and picnic tables. This is Jagera country. It has a long memory. At its northern end, the Turrbal land of the CBD, the bridge meets the monolithic glass-and-concrete headquarters of coal-seam-gas giant Santos, before winding down toward the stern facade of the Queensland Magistrate’s Court. A meeting point between settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, Kurilpa Bridge is an auspicious place from which to ask questions about the city Brisbane is becoming.
Underneath the bridge it’s cool, dark and disconcertingly empty: an expanse of grey concrete ends abruptly, disappearing into uneven dirt and dying grass. A few weeks earlier, this place was home to an encampment: people seeking shelter, visibility, proximity, safety in numbers. But, like so many before them, their presence here—precarious, uncertain, messy—proved incompatible with the city Brisbane is trying to become. Today, there is no visible archive of their occupation. Welcome to the new world city.
The Brisbane Times first covered their story under the headline: ‘South Brisbane vagrants set to be moved on’. The terminology is important: since at least 2006, Queensland Police have had expanded powers under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 to ‘move on’ people in public places if their presence causes anxiety to another person. The article quotes a council spokesperson who claimed to have received ‘12 complaints since August…about the group’s anti-social behaviour’. The precise nature of the behaviour was never explained. Queensland laws also prohibit a range of specific activities in public places (begging, sleeping, drinking etc), as well as broadly defined ‘public nuisance’ offences, which have been used to criminalise anything from swearing to protesting. Most of these carry substantial fines, ranging from $250 to $3000. Brisbane City Council also routinely confiscates property left in public spaces.
Meanwhile, across the bridge, Queensland grapples with the end of its mining boom. The terrain is familiar: as investment in the old extractive and manufacturing industries dwindles, capital needs to expand. It seeks out new geographies in which to speculate. Stand on Kurilpa Bridge and look in any direction and you’ll see a skyline crammed with cranes; across the inner city, suburbs are a mess of building sites and traffic jams. At least 10,000 new apartments are being built in Brisbane, with a further 30,000 slated to hit the market in the next three years. The median starting price will be around $380,000. Brisbane is under construction.
Lord Mayor Graham Quirk defended the evictions from Kurilpa Point Park, saying ‘I could not … allow a township to grow at that location … which of course is the very same location that (French student) Sophie Collombet was murdered’. Such reflexive association of homeless people with violence—despite solid evidence that they are more often its victims than its perpetrators—contributes to their ongoing criminalisation. And as gentrification reshapes surrounding neighbourhoods, the few ‘common’ spaces available to homeless residents are subject to heightened scrutiny, policing and the threat of violence …