'Concerning' Phone App To Report Beggars And Homeless Launched In Darwin
An 'anti-social behaviour' app where citizens drop a GPS pin to report homelessness, begging or public drunkenness is a "concern" for legal advocates who fear it may further marginalise poor or Indigenous people in the NT.
The Northern Territory Anti-Social Behaviour (NT-ASB) phone app has been launched in a trial in Darwin, led by the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation, in collaboration with the NT government and City of Darwin.
The free smartphone app lets users report a range of activities deemed "anti-social behaviour" -- including public intoxication, 'sleeping, camping or homelessness', people playing music loudly in public, offensive language or begging.
Other issues such as concerns for welfare -- including people lying on busy pathways or 'vulnerable' people at risk -- can also be reported.
Users drop a GPS pin on a map of Darwin to note the exact spot of the alleged behaviour.
"Larrakia Nation will assess your report. A Larrakia patrol vehicle will be sent to the location of reports based on job priorities," the app's website explains of the process after a report is submitted.
"Patrol Officers will mediate and negotiate to address behaviour issues and/or help people into support services. NT Police or other emergency services may be required to assist patrol teams."
Larrakia Nation said in a statement that the app would be "an improvement in contact mechanisms", saying it complements response and outreach services already offered to the community.
"We are not about marginalising community; we are about supporting people who some would already consider marginalised. We have no powers of arrest or powers to move people on and we do not want them," LNAC said.
But critics say the app may do just that, and further marginalise people experiencing poverty or homelessness -- and that even the app's name is a problem.
"My major concern is the app is really not looking at the root causes of homelessness," David Woodroffe, principal legal officer at Darwin's North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, told 10 daily.
"Those public order offences in public spaces are a situation increasingly resulting in imprisonment. There are root causes that need to be addressed."
NT Shelter, the peak body for homelessness, said the territory has 12 times the national average rate of homelessness, with six percent of the entire population being homeless -- including nearly 17 percent of all people aged under 18, and 20 percent of the NT's Indigenous population.
Around eight percent of the NT's homeless are sleeping rough. Around half sought the help of homelessness services due to domestic violence.
"A person who has nowhere to live and sleeps rough is not engaging in anti-social behaviour. They need housing, not reporting," Peter McMillan, executive officer of NT Shelter, told 10 daily.
"The vast majority of Territorians sleeping rough in Darwin are law abiding citizens, are not a threat to the safety of others, and do not deserve to be branded with the anti-social behaviour tag."
Woodroffe said there was a housing "crisis" in the NT, with nearly half of the territory's homeless population being turned away from services due to lack of resources, and around 80 percent of those deemed 'homeless' living in severely overcrowded dwellings due to a lack of housing options.
The NT government declined to comment when approached by 10 daily, referring enquiries to LNAC.
Woodroffe said begging and sleeping in public are criminal offences in the NT, and can result in people being picked up by police.
While Larrakia Nation said the NTASB app could help people avoid police attention -- noting police "have the ability to refer to us where incidents require a softer approach" -- Woodroffe fears the anonymous reporting ability of the app would see more people come under police attention.
He said offences linked to public order and homelessness were already the fourth most prevalent type of crime in the NT.
McMillan said the app's function to report homelessness was "unnecessary and misplaced", and said NT Shelter would ask for that to be removed from the app.
"If people report genuine anti-social behaviour then that’s okay," he said, saying there were some helpful components of the program.
"It was a mistake for the NT Government to bundle anti-social behaviour initiative, such as the app, with those to help get rough sleepers the help they need."
10 daily has spoken to other lawyers in the NT, who declined to speak on the record, who have raised fears about the potential for the app to disproportionately report Indigenous people, and for them to come under further police scrutiny.
"The app itself looks at Aboriginal people in spaces from a criminal or anti-social perspective, rather than a perspective that we need to assist and support people looking for help," Woodroffe said.
"The app is even called 'anti-social behaviour'. It's not community-oriented, like the community looking out for your neighbour, it's called 'anti-social'."
"There needs to be further evaluation of this app. There is a sense of public good here, but what's the next step? How can we get these services to help that person?"
LNAC seems to have noted issues around the name, with a media statement saying that "feedback about the app, including a more appropriate name, is welcome through the app feedback link" through the trial period.
"The app is, at this time, only a six-week trial. We are hoping that the outcome will be a better ability to respond to incidents where vulnerable community members require our support," LNAC said.
The NTASB website is taking feedback and suggestions about the app online.