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First Nations outreach services to be set up throughout Victoria as public intoxication is decriminalised

Dechlan Brennan -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians will have access to dedicated services throughout the state as Victoria prepares to decriminalise public drunkenness on Tuesday.

The law change, which comes almost six years after the death of Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day in a prison cell after being arrested for public drunkeness, has been advocated by health experts, legal advocates and Indigenous groups, whilst simultaneously criticised by police groups and the state Opposition.

On Monday, Minister for Mental Health, Ingrid Stitt, told the media the law change was a direct result of the advocacy of the Day family, along with recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

"For the vast majority of Victorians, this change will have no material effect on their daily lives," Ms Stitt said.

"But those who do find themselves intoxicated in public, and needing additional support, will get the most appropriate care and support for their circumstances."

For Indigenous Victorians, this will mean eight dedicated regional services to provide help and support for intoxicated people, along with one First Nations sobering centre in St Kilda.

The eight regional areas are:

Geelong - Wathaurong Aboriginal cooperative

Ballarat - Ballarat and Districts Aboriginal cooperative

Bendigo - Bendigo and District Aboriginal cooperative

Shepparton - Rumbalara Aboriginal cooperative

Mildura - Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal corporation, supported by Mildura Base hospital

Swan Hill - Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal corporation

Latrobe - Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal corporation

East Gippsland - Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal corporation

Minister Stitt said these providers will offer outreach services from Tuesday as well as having "on demand places of safety" set up in the next couple of months.

However only one place, Shepparton, is ready to go. Ms Stitt defended the delay, arguing it was a process that takes time to be fully implemented.

"I don't make any apology for the government taking the time necessary to set up a system that's going to be robust and that's going to actually address the issues that we want addressed," she said.

"I think that what we have here is a system that will provide that compassionate and appropriate care and support for people in our community who need it the most."

Ngwala Willumbong Aboriginal Corporation will run four of the regional services along with their pre-existing facility in St Kilda, which will become a six-bed sobering centre from tomorrow.

Ngwala CEO De-Joel Upkett said the programs they've previously operated would benefit now that clinical responses are included in services they can deliver.

"We always have met with community, but to be able to deliver a clinical response with a holistic approach; you know it's an opportunity to bring community back into our services," he said.

Ngwala already operates three centres across the state and the opportunity for culturally appropriate responses what is now defined as a health issue, is considered a key reasoning behind Indigenous-led health groups running a significant number of the outreach programs.

From tomorrow, Ngwala will operate outreach services across Melbourne, Frankston and Wyndham, supporting First Nations people who are intoxicated in public, and if need be, transporting them to the sobering centre in St Kilda.

The focus on Indigenous-specific support, which makes up most of the initial outlay of services, is an acknowledgement from the government that First Nations Victorian's were disproportionately impacted by laws targeting public drunkenness.

This can be seen in the presentation of the health group, cohealth, who will run the outreach programs in Melbourne as well as the 20-bed sobering facility - to be in Collingwood when it opens towards the end of the month.

They have been open in their choice of uniform colour - bright pink – so as to distinguish public intoxication outreach services from police and emergency service workers, many of whom wear navy.

"We want to create a feeling of safety and calm, especially for clients who have had negative experiences with police and institutions, and even our uniforms can impact client interactions," cohealth's Deputy Chief Executive Christopher Turner said in a statement.

cohealth's pink uniform with their outreach vans (Image: supplied)

The government, along with cohealth, have stressed that the sobering centres would be considered a last resort.

"The sobering centre is the last option," Mr Turner said.

"We'll work with other health services and hospitals if we reach capacity, so people will always get the care and support they need."

Ms Stitt said the preference would always be to help intoxicated people get to somewhere safe.

"…this new approach will include outreach services to support people with transport to a safe place if needed," she said.

"For most people, this will be their own home or that of a family member, friend or carer – for others, it may be a staffed place of safety or sobering centre."

All the stakeholders were adamant the health-based response would focus on cultural sensitivity, safety and consent, with the aim being for people to no longer be intoxicated in a prison cell.

Tanya Day's family iterated these statements last week, arguing that the law change is long overdue.

"As our mother's case and all the other similar cases show, police cells are dangerous places for intoxicated people. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this is especially so, where systemic racism and bias held by individuals means that our people are more likely to die when detained in police cells."

The services will be overseen by the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), who will engage with first responders in a coordinated, centralised service. They have so far recruited 29 new staff for the law change implementation Tuesday.

The government was quick to highlight that Ambulance Victoria and the Victorian Police would still be available if there were community safety concerns or health risks.

They said people should continue to contact triple zero if they have worries about an intoxicated person, especially if they feel they are a danger to themselves or others.

The Victorian Legal Service (VALS) has stated they want the Victorian police to not utilise the array of other powers they have to continue to arrest intoxicated people.

"Victoria Police must not use alternative powers to undermine the reforms," VALS chief executive Nerita Waight said.

"It is critical that the Victorian Government monitors implementation of the reforms through public and transparent reporting on alternative police powers, including move on powers."


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