Responding to Martin Place’s tent city
If it weren’t so serious, you might call it irony. As it stands, it’s a grim symbol of how we treat our most vulnerable.
This week is national Homelessness Week – a time to raise awareness of people experiencing homelessness and the issues they face.
In New South Wales, the state government marked the week by hardening laws to allow police to forcibly remove from public spaces people who are sleeping rough in public spaces.
After years of ignoring the hundreds of people sleeping in doorways and back streets, it was tents pitched outside the gleaming offices of politicians and financiers in Martin Place that proved too much to bear.
Right-wing shock jocks and tabloid media were outraged and their outrage spurred the government’s outrage. The Minister for Family and Community Services, Pru Goward, promised that, “We will move these people on. I don’t care what it takes.” Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said, “If one person puts a step out of line, I’ll throw them in the back of the truck.”
The government claimed that only the City of Sydney had the authority to act – that we had no choice but to move on people. But the law couldn’t be clearer – while the Local Government Act empowers the city to remove items from a public place in certain circumstances, our staff have no legal authority or training to move on people or to prevent people from bringing goods into a public space.
Only NSW Police can do that. The police commissioner has all the power he needs to take action.
Does anyone seriously believe NSW Police needs approval from the city to take action if they think there’s a real risk to public safety? And even if we were able to direct the police, to where would homeless people be moved?
Earlier this year, the city’s biannual street count identified 433 people sleeping rough in the City of Sydney and 489 people in crisis or temporary accommodation centres that are operating at 91 per cent capacity.
Many are escaping domestic violence or suffer chronic mental health problems. Of the people who are homeless in the inner city, 29 per cent have a brain injury, 72 per cent report substance abuse, 53 per cent report mental health issues, 49 per cent have a history of trauma and 44 per cent report being a victim of violence.
Simply putting them up in a hotel for a few nights or moving them to homes away from the support services and community on which they rely does nothing to help these people and often makes things worse.
This is why I do not support moving homeless and vulnerable people from public spaces without necessary support and permanent housing. Without assistance and housing, vulnerable people will be further harmed and the “tent city” will simply return.
We know this through bitter experience. City staff has worked with the state government many times in the past few years to try to manage Martin Place.
The most recent was in June and we stepped in because demolition work was beginning on a major development. Builder Lendlease asked people to move their belongings from under the active hoarding installed to protect construction workers and the public from demolition works. City staff removed many items by negotiation with their owners.
But, as we’ve seen with every clean-up operation, items reappeared in the public space within hours.
The fact is, housing in Sydney is at crisis point. People literally have nowhere to go and simply repeating what we’ve done in the past will not solve this crisis.
As the week wore on, caveats such as “only those eligible” started getting tossed around. Politicians and talkback radio stopped talking about “homeless people” and shifted to dismissive references to “professional protesters”. As if sleeping in a tent in the middle of the city, in the dead of winter, is something anyone would
do for fun.
And all the while the government ignored the easiest and most obvious solution. The Sirius building in the Rocks was purpose-built for social housing in the late-1970s, after Jack Mundey and the green bans movement saved many of the oldest buildings in the area, as well as parks and open spaces. That fight was not just about protecting old buildings; it was also about protecting the area’s low-income residents.
Shockingly, this government has spent the past few years evicting people from Sirius with the aim of selling it to a developer to turn it into housing for the very wealthy. Thanks to a fierce community campaign, its plans stalled and now 77 homes in Sirius are sitting empty, while nearby in Martin Place people sleep in tents.
The government argues it is selling Sirius to build more social housing, but that’s misleading at best. While it may be building housing elsewhere in NSW, it has destroyed social housing communities in the inner city, the very place where many homeless people end up.
This situation is a direct consequence of decades of shameful inaction from successive state governments. Instead of investing in more social housing in the
city, people have been evicted and homes sold to the highest bidder.
You can’t solve homelessness without housing and we desperately need more supported and affordable housing in the inner city, not less. Our city shouldn’t be a place that is only accessible to the wealthy.
Last week, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said the people sleeping rough in Martin Place made her “completely uncomfortable”.
The truth is nothing about homelessness is comfortable.
Sleeping in a cold tent on a concrete floor in the middle of winter isn’t comfortable. Needing to leave home in the middle of the night because your violent spouse has abused you isn’t comfortable. Losing your job and not being able to pay the rent isn’t comfortable. Growing up on the streets because you don’t have a stable family isn’t comfortable.
The Martin Place situation is tragic but what’s more tragic is that this debate has dehumanised the people forced into this situation so much so that talk is about moving them on rather than about long-term solutions.
What is needed is a suite of new models to preserve and increase social and affordable housing. In Britain, housing estates have been successfully redeveloped using a mix of social, affordable and private housing, with private housing providing cross-subsidies for the social and affordable housing.
Affordable housing schemes in Greater London deliver up to 50 per cent new homes, while urban renewal schemes in inner Sydney rarely achieve even 3 per cent.
Last week, I repeated my call for the government to increase the number of supported permanent affordable homes in the city.
I asked them to reconsider the city’s proposal for a second Common Ground development, which would create 150 new affordable and social housing units, 50 of which would be specifically designed with support services for vulnerable homeless people. The proposal also asked to allow us to extend our affordable housing levy across our area, which would help deliver up to 2000 new affordable units. We’ve already shown how this can work in an effective and affordable way in Green Square and Pyrmont and Ultimo.
Disappointingly the government was not willing to commit to these long-term solutions. Instead, during Homelessness Week, they moved to harden the laws to forcefully move vulnerable homeless people.
Not only have they gutted social housing in our area, they’re now making it illegal for homeless people to access public spaces in the city. It’s a stomach-turning series of events.
It didn’t have to end up like this. I negotiated a peaceful resolution with camp organiser Lanz Priestley, on behalf of the 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space, in Martin Place.
Priestley agreed to dismantle tents if an immediate 24/7 safe space in the city centre was established while a permanent 24/7 safe space was developed. And to encourage people to take the housing offered by the government.
The minister had already committed to creating a permanent safe space – all she needed to do was to work with us on the interim solution that had already been flagged with her own agency.
This would have seen a peaceful and orderly end to the camp by the end of the week.
We offered funding for the permanent facility and one of our venues for the immediate space but rather than co-operation towards a peaceful resolution, the premier moved to change the law, setting up the risk of violent conflicts between police and homeless people, like we saw in Melbourne. It’s not a scene I want repeated in Sydney and our offer is still on the table.
You can learn a lot about a society by looking at the way its most vulnerable people are treated. I despair at what people would learn about our city if they only looked at what our government has done to vulnerable people over the past week or so.
Inciting fear, uprooting community and banishing the poor from public spaces – everyone should be outraged about this.
Sydney is not just a city for the shiny, pretty and wealthy. Ours is a city for everyone. A city famous for its egalitarianism and multimillion-dollar views for those on the biggest and smallest incomes. Shame on any government that tries to change that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Tense city". Subscribe here.