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NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters this week that the Martin Place rough sleepers make her feel “completely uncomfortable.”
But that’s to be expected. As NSW MPs are confronted with the state’s homelessness crisis directly across the road from Parliament House, it’s hardly going to make them feel at ease. As the politicians make their way home at the end of the day, these people will be sleeping in tents on the street.
However, the premier’s response to her troublesome feeling is not to help out – but rather to request that Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore move them on. It seems that if the problem is swept under the carpet, Ms Berejiklian might sleep better at night.
Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space has been in operating in Martin Place since mid-December last year. It’s been feeding hundreds of the city’s needy on a daily basis, as well as providing a secure place for homeless people to sleep.
The operation was actually established to help protect homeless women who’d reported being woken up on the street at night with men trying to sexually assault them. Once co-founder of the safe space Lanz Priestley heard these reports, the setup was rolled out 48 hours later.
In its current state, the safe space consists of 40 tents pitched in front of the Reserve Bank on the eastern side of Martin Place. On Tuesday night, it sheltered 58 people. NSW social housing minister Pru Goward has raised safety concerns about the tents blocking the pedestrian mall.
However, the reason why the setup has morphed into a burgeoning tent city is because the City of Sydney council evicted them from underneath some construction hoardings along the side of Martin Place in mid-June. The council simply sent workers in and boarded up the shelter.
Minister Goward appeared on the ABC’s Drive program on Tuesday reiterating the premier’s call to move the homeless people on. The minister said that Housing NSW had been at the site 42 times, and made countless offers of temporary accommodation, as well as 60 offers of permanent.
According to Ms Goward, these people have turned down accommodation in some of Sydney’s nicer suburbs. She went onto state that, “Obviously, their issue is not homelessness, or they would be accepting of an offer to live at Hunters Hill.”
Regardless of postcodes, temporary accommodation is not an answer, when there’s nothing else available on the other side. RMIT professor of homelessness Guy Johnson has said that offers of temporary accommodation are simply attempts to try “to clear the streets to turn it into a less visible problem.”’
The professor has also pointed out that this sort of accommodation can be “dangerous and violent.” Mr Priestley mentioned in a Facebook post on Tuesday that over the Christmas period, a homeless man was murdered in Woolloomooloo’s Matthew Talbot Hostel.
Mr Priestley said he was surprised by the minister’s “I just want it to go away” attitude, as a few months ago, she “actually came down and had breakfast” at the site. Priestley recalled that Ms Goward said at the time, “I can do something about this. I can stop this happening.”
Indeed, at the same moment the City of Sydney was throwing the homeless people out of their space, the minister’s department “threw out the rule book.” During the eviction, a Housing NSW representative turned up and promised all the rough sleepers temporary accommodation leading onto permanent.
“This was great for the people that got accommodated,” Mr Priestley told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. And that process is still underway. But that didn’t solve the housing issue for all the city’s homeless, and those people currently sleeping in Martin Place, haven’t been offered a long-term solution.
Lord mayor Clover Moore also appeared on Drive. She acknowledged the council didn’t have the power to move people on under the provisions of the NSW Local Government Act 1993. All it can actually do is move structures and items.
The mayor conceded that long-term solutions were needed. She suggested the Sirius building in Millers Point be used to house the Martin Place rough sleepers, as well as another Common Ground be established in Redfern, like the one that exists in Camperdown.
Common Ground is a housing project that permanently accommodates around 50 previously homeless people. It’s based on the Housing First model, where homeless people are initially offered a home to live in, and then provided with support services.
Mr Priestley doesn’t think the Common Ground model works, as “a lot of those people end up back on the streets.” However, he agrees that the option of the Sirius building as permanent accommodation is a good idea, as long as it’s not “another invasive Mission Australia managed model.”
Mr Priestley doesn’t believe Ms Moore’s statement displays a change of attitude towards Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space, as the council has been firmly against it since the beginning. Indeed, the council’s homelessness unit raided the operation four times, prior to the eviction in June.
During the radio program, Richard Glover questioned minister Goward as to whether she thought the Martin Place setup was actually a “political statement.” The minister avoided the question, replying, “That’s for you and others to guess.”
Martin Place is an area of the city that the homeless community have had a long association with. There are others like it, such as Central’s Belmore Park and Wentworth Park in Glebe. The camp at Martin Place is no more a protest than the homeless communities congregated in other areas are.
The difference is that this location is right in the heart of the city and near parliament house, drawing the attention of high-flyers and parliamentarians to the ever-increasing homelessness problem.
The latest City of Sydney street count found that in February this year, there were 948 homeless people in the city alone, representing a 28 percent increase since 2011. And there’s a glaring lack of social housing in NSW, with over 60,000 people on the waiting list state-wide.
So while Sydney continues on as the second most unaffordable city in the world, and more people end up on the street, it’s no wonder that these people would want to form a safe community, rather than stay in a dodgy room for a few days, only to end up back out there alone.
Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space has an ongoing call-out for donations. They can be contacted on 0410 722 000 or through their Facebook page. And members of the public are welcome to drop off donations at the site directly.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.