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Policing of homeless youth in public space

The youth form one of the major consumers of public space in Australia. They use public space in a number of ways among them, street music scenes, street machinery and car show offs, street dancers where the street is the stage (Walsh, 2008). However, public space has to be controlled for the sake of shaping the wider social environment. The task of controlling public space lies with the police. There is a special group of youth, the homeless, who spend their life in the street. This essay with seek to establish the various ways through which policing of public space affects the homeless youth. To do this, the essay with explore the various policing strategies that segregate homeless youth and what homeless youth have to say about their relation with the police in public space.

According to McAra & McVie (2005), homelessness describes a condition of an individual with no regular dwelling place. The best character of a homeless person is they lack regular, secure, and adequate nightlife housing. Such a person will spend their nightlife in the streets. On the other hand, public space in this context will be used to mean social space that is open and accessible to the public. These groups include public squares, parks, the street, beaches and roads.

The problem of police and private security against homeless youth can be shown from criminology data. According to the Australian institute of criminology (2009), youth detention rates in some parts of Australia serve to prove the clash between homeless youth and the security agents. For example, in Western Australia, the detention rate is 59.4 young people per 100,000 (Taylor, 2006). Out of this number, 70% are detained with public space related crimes and 40% are homeless youth. According to Valentine (2004), the majority of youth apprehended by police in public space it’s because of property related crimes rather than crimes against the person. This number ranges between 30-66% of youth detained for public spaces crimes (Australian Institute of Criminology. 2009).

Namely, some of the crimes youth are detained for in public space include theft, unlawful entry with intent, property damage and pollution, public order offences, traffic and vehicle regulatory offences, and deception (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2009).

The first strategy used by the police to contain the youth in public space is the coercive approach. This strategy is based on an approach of using coercion or unpleasant sanction used to threaten the youth (Chan J, Ed, 2005). This strategy is based on the fact that, the youth can be a difficult lot to control and it is better to prevention than treatment. Coercion measures are reinforced with combination of law and order rhetoric, media hype, and strategies for situational crime prevention build for crime control rather than community building (Flusty, 2001). This strategy casually ignores the fact there are special groups among the youth age bracket among then homeless youth.

The second strategy is developmental approaches to crime prevention. This strategy is comparatively different to the coercion strategy. This strategy is meant to direct the youth towards opportunities and activities that reflect youth interests and needs (Malone, 2002). This opportunity is meant to enhance the youth by seeking solution for the problems the youth are facing. The principle behind this strategy is to develop solutions that the youth can identify and claim ownership. For this strategy to work, it requires that all youth groups including the special and marginalized groups be involved. In this respect, it requires that the youth participate in crime control strategies. This strategy is carried out by institutions among them schools, health centers, welfare organization, etc (Flusty, 2001). However, does this serve to address the primary concerns of homeless youth?

The third policing strategy used to control crime among the youth in public space is accommodation approaches (Chan J, Ed), 2005). This strategy is not related to the coercion and developmental strategies per se. it has been established because of the conflict that exists between law enforcement machineries and the youth. The primary objective of this strategy is to establish a common ground where both the police/private security and the youth can operate and consume public space without conflict. This strategy is based on negotiations. For the two groups to come to an understanding, they have to converse on a give and take basis for a common ground (Hinds, 2007).

Despite these strategies being in place, there continues to be disadvantage and exclusion of homeless youth (Walsh, 2008). The various ways through which homeless youth are excluded or discriminated by these strategies are discussed below.

According to Walsh (2008), the public visibility of homeless youth is one factor which has rendered them prone to police and the increasing private police surveillance. Homeless youth in public space are perceived as unsettled and problematic. What this means is, a homeless youth is quickly taken for a suspect or potential criminal. This fact is exacerbated by other factors like race. While a homeless non-indigenous can be lightly handled by the police, an indigenous and homeless youth is bound to face it tough when they come across security agents. The true relationship between police and homeless youth is best witnessed during night hours (Malone, 2002). Police on patrol will terrorize homeless youth for no apparent reason. This notion of homeless youth as troublesome combined with the coercion strategy makeup a real threat for young homeless persons.

In addition, the coercion strategy does not seem to take into consideration the fact that, there are disadvantaged young persons who don’t have fixed dwellings. The coercion strategy is founded on a generalization that, all young persons have a home and enjoy a life with the basic needs available (Malone, 2002). This is an outright exclusion of homeless youth because, as they don’t have the “standard” lifestyle as assumed by the coercion strategy, they are prone to the threats of sanctions. This comes with the assumption that, homeless youth are unable to get the basic requirements like food. To be able to sustain themselves in the streets – which are mostly their ‘home’ – they have to engage in theft to sustain themselves.

Developmental crime prevention strategy too does not take in the consideration of homeless youth. This strategy is founded on the notion that, a young person should be at a certain level in live and there are normal problems, which they experience; problems which the developmental strategy seeks to solve. Unfortunately, homelessness is not one of them. In addition, this strategy is foreseen by schools, health centers and welfare organization. This is a disadvantage to the homeless youth because the majority of them don’t have access to these institutions. Moreover, for one to access and participate in the developmental process, they have to register. One of the items for registration is, address and residence. These two are discriminating to the homeless youth who may not have any address, let alone residence area.

The strategy apparent discrimination of homeless youth is exacerbated by the fact that in Australia, the police have been granted powers vis-à-vis young people. These powers range from casual name-checks, move-on powers, and search powers for illegal substances and/or implements. “Name-check” powers requires asking the young person for their name and address, while “move-on” powers is asking a young person to move away from a certain space. Once a young homeless person is unable to provide these details, the police or private security agents have unquestionable power to ask the young person to move away from the institution. This might be after a search for implements like knives, scissors, etc.

The third strategy of accommodation still has its disadvantages toward homeless youth. First, for accommodation to take place, it means that the situation has to be acknowledged. However, the crime situation has more than once been over reported by the media (Osmond, 2012). Amplifies the condition of homeless youth and relates it to deviance. Amplification of perceived homeless youth deviance is not only done by the media, but also by security agents in public areas through dispersal powers. As a result, homeless youth are unfairly treated and it leads to misplaced stigmatization. Unfair treatment of homeless youth by both state police and private security is witnessed through routine adversarial homeless youth and security agencies relation. At the end of this chain process, homeless youth will amplify defiance as a protective strategy of “stand my ground”.

Accommodation strategy in its setting is ignorant of the existing problem of homelessness among young people. The strategy presents a spatial exclusion of homeless youth who are first categorized as a problematic and a threat to social order. The use of the term accommodation presents a notion of “we can live with it”, which is definitely not acceptable in the modern day society (Lynch et al, 2003). To ‘accommodate’ the situation, security agents are used to contain the threatening homeless youth. As a strategy to keep this group of young people out of public space, the majority of public areas are being privatized in Australia. These include beaches, parks, etc.

The idea behind privatization is to ensure that the conditions in public spaces are too harsh for youth to bear, hence seek regular fixed homes. The ruthless private security man privatized public space making it impossible for homeless youth to access the area (Hinds, 2007). Note: this strategy is ignorant of the fact that, homelessness is not by choice, but due to other driving forces like poverty, state of mind, lack of financially stable dependants, etc.

In conclusion, there are three policing strategies used by both state and private police in Australia to control crime in public area. These are coercion, accommodation, and developmental. These strategies are created to handle and tackle youth issues in public spaces for the aim of controlling youth crime instances. However, these strategies have major disadvantages towards homeless youth.

Coercion strategy puts homeless youth up for public visibility hence more surveillance by public agents. Secondly, this strategy overlooks the presence of homelessness among young people and by seemingly setting a standard for a young person. Developmental strategy is discriminative towards homeless youth because, for a young person to participate in the programs, they need to fill personal details, which among them is address and area of residence. Secondly, it discriminates in the fact that, the police have powers to stop and check and order move-on of any homeless young person. Lastly, accommodation strategy disadvantages homeless youth through amplification of the situation and any light incidences and through spatial exclusion of this group.



Australian Institute of Criminology. (2009) ‘Juveniles in Detention in Australia, 1981–2007.’ Monitoring Reports no. 5. Prepared by Natalie Taylor, Australian Institute of Criminology: Canberra

Chan, J. ed., (2005) Reshaping Juvenile Justice. ‘The New South Wales Young Offenders Act 1997’, Institute of Criminology Monograph Series, Sydney

Flusty, S. (2001) ‘The banality of interdiction: Surveillance, control and the displacement of diversity’, International Journal of Urban and Regional research, 25(3): 658-664).

Hinds, L. (2007) Building Police–Youth Relationships: The Importance of Procedural Justice, Youth Justice 7(3): 195–209

Hunter, C., Nixon, J. & Shayer, S. (2000) ‘Neighbour Nuisance, Social Landlords and the Law’

Lynch, M., Buckman, J. & Krenske, L. (2003) ‘Youth Justice: Criminal Trajectories’, Research and Issues Paper No 4 July Crime and Misconduct Commission Brisbane

Malone, K. (2002) ‘Street life: Youth, culture and competing uses of public space’, Environment and Urbanization, 14: 157-168.

McAra, L. & McVie, S. (2005) ‘The usual suspects? Street-life, young people and the police’, Criminal Justice, 5(1): 5-36.

Taylor, N. (2006) ‘Juveniles in Detention in Australia 1981-2005 Technical and Background’ Paper No 22 Australian Institute of Criminology Canberra

Valentine, G. (2004) ‘Contested terrain: Teenagers in public space’, In G. Valentine, Public space and the culture of childhood, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp 83-98.

Walsh, T. (2008) ‘Policing disadvantage: Giving voice to those affected by the politics of law and disorder’, Alternative Law Journal, 33(3): 160-164.

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