By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Homelessness is a growing problem in Sydney, with hundreds of people sleeping rough in and around the CBD every night.
These people have nowhere else to stay, and with the city’s lack of public housing and current housing affordability crisis, they are left to fend for themselves in the cold winter months.
Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space was set up in Martin Place in mid-December last year by a group of homelessness advocates concerned about the plight of these vulnerable people – providing free food and a safe place to sleep at night.
Since then, the space has been raided up to four times by the City of Sydney’s homelessness unit – accompanied by police – who confiscated gas bottles, barbecues and other items.
Earlier this month, we reported on threats by the City of Sydney to close down the safe space, despite the Council’s failure to provide viable alternatives.
The Council made good on its threats yesterday when, accompanied by police, its workers stormed Martin Place and shut down the facility.
Early morning raid
Bulldozers, council workers and police moved into the area early in the morning, only a short time after a representative of the City of Sydney delivered a letter on behalf of the Council to all of the people living there.
The letter declared the group and their belongings a “public nuisance”.
“The accumulation of items in Martin Place, including a barbecue, gas bottles, tents, food and other items has been determined to be a public nuisance as it materially affects the reasonable comfort and convenience of other users of Martin Place,” said the letter, written by David Riordan, director of city operations.
At one stage, there were 60 people living rough in the homeless camp. Some woke early to pack up their belongings, moving to the other side of Martin Place near the Reserve Bank, where we are advised the Safe Space has reopened. The concern, of course, is that the new location will also be targeted.
Police harass homeless man
In a separate incident only hours earlier, a video was posted online of police officers harassing a homeless man in Sydney.
Keteilia Harris says shortly before she began filming the incident, one of the officers punched the man and told him move on, as he was trying to eat dinner provided by a community food service.
“Just witnessed this police officer harass a poor homeless man while he was ‘hanging around’ collecting his free dinner that lovely people were providing,” Ms Harris wrote on Facebook.
“Before this video the police officer punched him and asked him to move away 500 metres after calling him “a homeless piece of shit” while the man was asking the police officer why he’s being sent away.”
The video shows an officer grabbing the man and pushing him up against a railing.
A police officer is heard saying: “I’m going to write you a ticket.
“What for?” the homeless man asks.
“For offensive behaviour, offensive language,” the police officer replies.
“Where is the offensive behaviour?” the homeless man questions.
“So here’s what’s going to happen — I have a ticket for offensive behaviour and I’ll give you one more chance to move and if not, if not, shut up, shut up for f***’s sake,” the police officer says as the man attempts to talk.
Homelessness in Australia
Homelessness affects people from all ages and backgrounds.
There are some groups that are more vulnerable than others – such as those with drug and alcohol dependency, or mental illness or disability- but the overall number of people reaching out to homelessness services has been increasing for years.
Homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime than others. They need to be assisted by police and supported by the community, not targeted for harassment and demonisation.
In its 2017 budget, the federal government provided a much-needed funding boost of $375 million over three years to frontline services for the homeless as part of the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement.
While it is not entirely clear how the package will be administered, those working in the field say that a multi-faceted approach is the only way to address the issue in Australia.