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Copyright (c) 2002 Melbourne University Law Review Association, Inc.
Melbourne University Law Review

CRITIQUE AND COMMENT: Begging for Change: Homelessness and the Law


26 Melbourne U. L.R. 690




The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread. 1


The disproportionate impact of formally equal laws on 'unequals' was identified over 100 years ago by Anatole France, writer, critic, communist and winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature. The counterview that 'where you live and your social standing is a non-issue' 2 (as recently expressed by the Police Chief Inspector for Melbourne) fails to account for the social context of law.

In this article, I examine the impact and effect of law and law enforcement on one of society's most 'unequal' groups -- people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. I argue that homeless people are disproportionately affected by the application of law without regard to status and are especially subject to the criminalisation of behaviour that would be lawful if conducted in a private dwelling. I further argue that homeless people are sometimes targeted for arbitrary or selective enforcement of laws, and often have their rights usurped by individuals and organisations that can act with relative impunity. I conclude that any meaningful notion of justice requires that the formulation and application of the law account for social context. Legal, social and economic responses that reduce inequality, promote dignity and address underlying causes of disenfran-chisement are crucial to the construction of sustainable pathways out of homelessness.


Definitions of 'homelessness' are ...
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