Public drunkenness vans to roam city on Cup Day as law repealed

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Four vans and teams of pink-clad health workers will begin roaming Melbourne to help intoxicated people on Tuesday – when public drunkenness is officially decriminalised in Victoria – focusing on hotspots such as Brunswick Street, St Kilda Road and Sunshine.

From Melbourne Cup Day, police will no longer be able to arrest or charge people for being drunk in public. Those who aren’t posing a threat to themselves or others may end up in the hands of outreach workers from community health service cohealth or the Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal Corporation.

Cohealth staff member Kim and operations manager Danny with one of the public intoxication vans to hit the road on Melbourne Cup day.Credit: Simon Schluter

The government has revealed 16 areas across the city it believes have the highest demand for support for public drunkenness, including three university campuses: Monash University in the east, Latrobe University in the north and Victoria University in the west.

In regional Victoria, Aboriginal-focused outreach teams will begin working tomorrow in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Mildura, Swan Hill, Latrobe and East Gippsland. Smaller sobering-up facilities will eventually be set up in those areas but will operate on demand, rather than 24/7 as in Melbourne.

Christopher Turner, deputy chief executive of cohealth, said the public drunkenness vans would mostly be in the CBD rather than at Flemington Racecourse on Tuesday because there would be plenty of emergency services and support at the field.

“There is a strong presence of both emergency services and safety services already in place [at the racing carnival],” he said.

“We’re really going to [be] in place people might find themselves after those events, [such as] public spaces.”

The Age revealed on Friday that a second 24/7 sobering-up centre in St Kilda will open on Tuesday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There is a temporary six-bed sobering-up service on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy operated by cohealth. A permanent 20-bed facility in Collingwood, also operated by cohealth, has not been completed in time for the repeal of the public drunkenness law and is due to open later this month.

Other key aspects of the changes are behind schedule – only four of the 10 cohealth vans will be up and running as staff undertake training.

A cohealth public drunkenness bus.

Aboriginal outreach services provided by Ngwala Willumbong will start on Tuesday in Melbourne, Frankston and Wyndham to assist intoxicated First Nations people, and may transport people to the St Kilda sobering-up centre in vans with staff in high-vis uniforms.

The cohealth outreach teams will either approach people who need assistance on the street or be dispatched after being contacted by emergency services. The teams can provide health assistance, which includes a breath test, only if people consent. If people are violent or too sick to consent, they will be handed to police or paramedics.

If taken to the sobering-up services, people will be offered food, water, medical oversight and a place to sleep for up to 12 hours, after which they may be transported home or referred to other services.

Minister for Mental Health Ingrid Stitt said that despite the delays, she was confident there were enough resources to handle the first day of the law repeal and that very few people would be affected by the change.

“I’d point you to the figures from last year’s Melbourne Cup day, which only saw five individuals across the state arrested for public intoxication,” she said.

The site of the government’s 20-bed sobering-up service in Collingwood, which is due to be completed by late November, weeks after public drunkenness laws are repealed.Credit: Joe Armao

Victoria is the second to last jurisdiction to decriminalise public drunkenness, leaving Queensland as the only state where the law remains.

First suggested as a reform in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Andrews government committed to repealing public drunkenness laws in 2019 after a campaign from the family of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died in police custody in 2017.

On Monday, Victoria Police said in a statement there would still be a visible presence of police at the Cup on Tuesday.

It said that if police were first on the scene, officers would remain with drunk people requiring urgent ambulance assistance until paramedics arrived, or if anyone committed a criminal offence, they would be “dealt with swiftly”.

“[Police] members will continue to encourage drunk people to seek support and assistance from family or friends,” a spokesperson said. “There will also be the option of referring them to the public intoxication response service overseen by the Department of Health.

“However, if they refuse and are not presenting a risk to others, there will no longer be a role for police.”

The Victorian Ambulance Union and the Police Association of Victoria have previously said they support the repeal but remain concerned about the implementation.

Both unions have been contacted for comment.

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