The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, recently proposed new bylaws to give police additional powers related to homelessness. Doyle later qualified that they would not be a ban on rough sleeping but would allow officers to remove items from homeless camps.
Experts have challenged the efficacy of a ban to reduce homelessness, but a key argument in favour of more aggressive strategies to clean up homeless camps focuses on how they depreciate the amenity of the city. Supporters of the ban argue the camps are “squalid” and turning the city into a “cesspit” and it’s been suggested that their inhabitants are “fake” beggars who harass tourists.
A common problem with stereotypes is not that they are wrong, but that they are singular. Although many people may feel that rough sleepers diminish the appearance of the city, those same rough sleepers may also contribute positively to the city in other unexpected ways.
Many Melbourne residents and visitors will be aware of Hosier Lane; it’s a laneway where street art has been tacitly endorsed and it has become the epicentre of Melbourne’s street art culture. It’s also perhaps Melbourne’s premiere tourist attraction. There are currently 96k images tagged #HosierLane on Instagram, which makes it more photographed than the Melbourne Zoo (85k), Federation Square (49k) or Eureka Tower (27k). Travel website TripAdvisor currently ranks it 4.5/5 stars.
Although Lord Mayor Doyle has often been supportive of the city’s street art he has also periodically raised concerns about the rise of graffiti tagging in the laneway. It’s common for tourists to write their names on the walls and the large number of artists in Melbourne coupled with relatively few legal spaces to paint mean the lifespan of the lane’s murals is typically very short. So it’s important that there are mural artists periodically repainting the laneway.
Who regularly repaints these murals? For the past eight months I have been in Hosier Lane every Sunday with a documentary filmmaker, collecting the stories of street artists experiencing homelessness. Of an estimated 247 rough sleepers in the city, I have encountered over a dozen regularly painting Hosier lane.
Passers-by sometimes offer small donations to offset the cost of paint and other street artists sometimes leave leftover aerosol cans, but often these artists creatively innovate with found objects (discarded house paint and wood or cloth from dumpsters for makeshift brushes).
Jay-Boy began painting in 1995. He and Acme (currently experiencing homelessness) have been painting together regularly for the past three years. Unlike all the other artists shown here, Jay-Boy is not currently camping out but has been periodically homeless in the past.
If my friends couldn’t be here, I wouldn’t want to paint here. I’d find somewhere else to paint. It’s a lot deeper than what people think. It’s not just somewhere to paint. There’s a community that’s developed here and a support network.
Jubs has only been painting for a few years, although he has a highly adept style. He’s quick witted and charismatic and so he attracts people, sometimes exacerbating tensions with his partner Milo (also a painter).
Soloe has been painting since adolescence. The last time I painted with him, he was working on a sign saying “human not homeless” to display above his camp.
At first it may seem fantastical to imagine a collective of street artists painting Hosier Lane by day and sleeping beneath their murals at night. But there is a simple reason that practising graffiti and street artists are over-represented in the homeless population.
Mainstream culture often denigrates homelessness as defeat personified and equates economic failure with a moral failure. However graffiti and street art subcultures traditionally celebrate “living off the grid”. So overlaying graffiti and street art onto homelessness can restore a lot of dignity and esteem to people who would otherwise be maligned by mainstream society.
A repeated argument deployed to displace people experiencing homelessness from Hosier Lane has been that their presence may adversely interfere with tourism.
Ironically, tourists are being drawn to the laneway by artworks often painted by rough sleepers. Tourists, in turn, generate economic benefits for local businesses. So it becomes unfairly reductive to posit all rough sleepers in opposition to the amenity of the city or its commercial interests.
There are many stories to be told about Melbourne’s community of homeless. Some of these stories ask us to assume the worst of rough sleepers and appeal to our misanthropy and pessimism about other human beings.
But there is no singular narrative and there are many optimistic and uplifting stories to be told about Melbourne’s community of homeless that redeem the dignity and decency of our city.
This feature originally appeared in The Conversation.