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A lack of government investment and a managerial culture among non-government organisations may be failing the homeless, says Sydney’s de facto mayor of the streets. By Mick Daley.

Policies failing the homeless

Lanz Priestley preparing food in a makeshift shelter for the homeless in Sydney.
Credit: Peter Parks / AFP / Getty Images

Lanz Priestley, de facto mayor of Sydney’s homeless, is a former building project manager. He organises trucks and teams of tent dwellers to do house removal jobs, performs domestic violence interventions and maintains a roster of free kitchens across the central business district. Last month, he became the voice of the homeless in their stand-off with the New South Wales government over the so-called tent city in Martin Place.

Priestley is a hard man to keep up with. He constantly patrols the streets, keeping tabs on individuals and organisations. He says Australia’s approach to the problem of homelessness is flawed, as it doesn’t have a model for completion.

“If we have a problem in project management we identify a point in time where we don’t have a problem and become redundant. We identify a methodology to get there and a diminishing cost structure along the way. But NGOs and government … work the other way. Every year they say, ‘Oh, the problem is getting bigger, so we’ve gotta pour more money into it.’ Doesn’t that mean that the methodology they’re using isn’t working? Throw it in the rubbish bin.”

Priestley has been working on Sydney’s streets for 30 years. He knows them intimately. He knows the secret camping hideouts, the stashes, the coffee shops that will give a homeless person a free cuppa.

“The fundamental problem,” he says, “is the government and NGOs do not look at it as a problem. If you were the CEO of Mission Australia, would you seriously want to be the guy who put up his hand to say, ‘I dried up the rivers of gold’?

“Their aim is to grow their business. Bureaucrats are incentivised to grow their departments so it grows their career path. There’s no zero-problem endgame.”

Priestley took me on a tour through his Sydney. The streets dominated by traffic and office workers seem different from this perspective. Pushing a trolley loaded with sleeping bags, talking to workers at various shelters, drinking coffee with long-term street sleepers, you start to see the homeless more and more. They are everywhere.

Peak bodies claim an increase of more than 35 per cent in homelessness in NSW from 2015. Priestly interprets those figures in rather more graphic terms.

“We’re seeing another 15 people a night that we’ve never seen before. Counting people that are sleeping in their cars with or without families, we’re seeing about another 25 a day.”

He has worked these streets from both sides. Throughout the city, he points out major buildings he project-managed to completion.

“I saw my role as the person that’s responsible for the delivery of quality to the end buyer. They’re depending on what I’m signing off on to tell them that they’ve bought a quality product. Well, guess what: I haven’t seen a quality product go up in the last 22 years.

“They have builders’ warranties that run out in seven years and there are a lot of materials that have an eight-to-12-year life. Part of the reason for that is it makes the property management more lucrative and therefore people will pay more for the property management rights, because they know in eight years’ time the tiles are going to go and then in nine years’ time it might be the seals on the windows and in 10 years it might be the waterproofing on the garden beds and showers that go.”

Priestley sees that “free-market” approach to building as a perfect metaphor for the attitude of government to homelessness. Dr Heather Holst, of homelessness support service Launch Housing in Melbourne, agrees.

“Social inequality is expressed through the housing market,” Holst says.

“Our rental tenancy acts are geared more to the rights of the owner who has an investment than, as it is in other countries, it is geared to the rights of the tenant. There’s a basic issue.”

Holst points to socially conservative governments such as that of Robert Menzies, who ensured that by 1966 75 per cent of Australians owned their own home.

“So there have been settlements in Australia, which meant that there was no effective homelessness. But when you just let the market rip on housing then inevitably you get more homelessness.”

Karyn Walsh, chief executive of Brisbane’s non-profit service Micah Projects, has adopted the Housing First approach. First trialled in Los Angeles in 1988, this aims to provide permanent housing and support services for the homeless.

It’s been particularly successful in Canada, where Alberta Human Services deliver housing for less than $C35,000 per person per year, as opposed to the $100,000 required annually to keep a chronically homeless person alive on the streets.

“There’s recognition that there is cost benefit in the justice system, to the health system. We get kids in school and the parents work-ready,” says Walsh. “That’s recognised all over the world.”

In Australia, the Turnbull government maintains faith in trickle-down economics to elevate the poor and homeless to work-ready status, to then presumably be capable of paying hyper-inflated rents. Penalties for unemployed people who fail to adhere to demands from private employment agencies are heavy. University of Technology Sydney studies show one-in-four people on benefits have been forced to beg on the streets, as housing has become a major stress on the unemployed.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott axed funding to peak advocacy body Homelessness Australia. Jenny Smith, who chairs Homelessness Australia and is chief executive of Victoria’s peak body, the Council to Homeless Persons, laments the lack of policy direction.

“There’s no doubt that investment in social housing hasn’t grown since Kevin Rudd’s injection into nation building around the global financial crisis,” she says.

“That was 2008-09 onwards. Done. We don’t actually have a template about how to do what is required across the public–private philanthropic investment space at all. There’s not even a back-of-the-envelope plan.

“It is very sobering that we’re currently facing a federal term of government without those policies in place. Our sector has got $115 million that is still uncertain, from the end of [last] financial year. And that’s just making the wheels go round to keep supporting people.”

Back in Sydney, Priestley has seen the wheels come off. He worked through the Occupy movement in 2011, where his teams were feeding up to 450 people a night. The O’Farrell state government was then ordering police to arrest homeless people.

 “If a homeless guy was asleep on the street, provided he didn’t have a blanket, they’d leave him there. But if he used a blanket or tried to do anything to take shelter, they’d take it off him. You’re allowed to sleep in the streets as long as you don’t use a blanket. What sort of logic drives that?”

Priestley’s solution is to trust in individuals or small independent groups.

“We’ve got 38 outfits which service Martin Place independently. If we set up a single delivery structure something can take that outfit out and that’s that whole service gone. Whereas if any of those outfits go down, the others can continue to operate. Some are church groups, some are family groups. There are Muslim groups, Hindus.”

Priestley sees these grassroots movements as a far more effective means of welfare distribution.

“What’s in the best interests of the NGO isn’t always what’s in the best interests of the target constituency,” he says.

“When I look at the NGOs, I can’t say the CEO isn’t doing their job, but it might be a different thing to what the public assumes. They allow for broadsheet accounting where they can say, ‘Oh, we spent that on the homeless.’ But when you unpack it, the money was spent on a brochure promoting a fundraiser…

“Ultimately, the most marginalised people in this conversation are the donors and the taxpayers. They don’t look under the hood to see what’s happening and they don’t stop to think that the problem’s actually getting bigger.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "Homeless truths". Subscribe here.

Mick Daley
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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