Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space has been providing the city’s homeless with meals and a sheltered area to sleep in since mid-December last year. Currently, the kitchen is dealing with an influx of people to feed, as the only drop-in centre in the city has temporarily shut its doors.
On average, the street kitchen has been providing around 400 to 500 meals a day to those in need in the CBD. But since Station Ltd at Wynyard has had to close its doors for at least three weeks, the setup is now preparing an extra 200 plates of food daily.
The operation is gearing up to increase its capacity even further. “On June 30, a church that does a fairly substantial breakfast for the guys is shutting down for three months,” said Lanz Priestley, who’s running the street kitchen, along with a group of volunteers.
A safe place to sleep
The kitchen and safe space is situated beneath a row of temporary construction awning on the side of the old Westpac building at 60 Martin Place.
Along with the meals, the setup allows for around 38 to 50 homeless people a night to sleep in an area where they feel safe and secure. On an evening when it’s raining, there can be over 55 rough sleepers at the site.
Back in December, Mr Priestley was involved with a group that were providing a Sunday homeless dinner in the local vicinity. Some of the women attending the meal told organisers that they’d been waking up on the street at night with men trying to sexually assault them.
As Priestley put it, something had to be done, and 48 hours later the street kitchen and safe space had been rolled out.
An ever-increasing need
Of course, the safe space can’t provide beds for Sydney’s entire homeless population. In February this year, the latest City of Sydney street count found there were 948 homeless people in the city. This is a 28 percent increase since 2011.
According to Priestley, since the beginning of January, they’ve been seeing an upsurge of new faces on the streets. Many of these people are finding themselves sleeping rough temporarily: for periods of one to three weeks. This is a demographic that hasn’t been seen on the city streets before.
In order to provide more bedding for Sydney’s homeless, the street kitchen and safe space is now running a crowdfunding campaign to raise $10,000 to buy 50 sets of bunk beds for the site.
“The simple math of that is 50 sets of bunks is 100 beds. And you take that over a year, that’s 36,500 bed nights at less than 33 cents a bed for the first year,” Mr Priestley told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.
An affordable housing crisis
And the need for these extra beds in Sydney city is dire. On the night of the last street count, the city’s crisis and temporary accommodation was at 91 percent capacity, and yet there were still 433 people sleeping out on the streets.
Sydney is ranked the second-most unaffordable city on the globe. There’s a lack of social housing, with over 60,000 people on the waiting list state-wide in NSW. And those on the list can be waiting for up to 10 years.
The encroaching city council
However, despite the hundreds of homeless people the street kitchen and safe space is helping out every day, the City of Sydney council has been at pains to try and shut the operation down.
The latest move by the city council has been to post a notice on the side of the building that the setup is operating beside. The notice states “that the builder is going to board up the area” that the kitchen and safe space is currently situated in “starting on June 26,” Mr Priestley explained.
“I did a quick DA search and there doesn’t seem to be any development that’s put in place that allows them to take over the public space that we’re currently occupying,” he continued, adding that a builder had confirmed that what the council are planning to do doesn’t comply with any laws.
This is only the City of Sydney’s latest attempt to close down the setup. Between last December and March, the council’s homelessness unit – accompanied by NSW police – raided the operation on four separate occasions.
Council rangers confiscated gas bottles and barbecues, along with any other items they deemed dangerous. The safe space organisers said the rangers stated that they’d be providing an itemised list outlining what had been seized, but so far, they’ve failed to do so.
The embedded housing department
Housing NSW has been sending representatives along to the street kitchen and safe space three times a week. They’ve recently asked Priestley for the details of a number of the regulars that they’ve been helping out, “with a view to getting them housed.”
To do this, Mr Priestley believes the housing department might be using the recent funding the NSW government has set aside to help the state’s rough sleepers.
Earlier this month, the Berejiklian government announced it was providing $20 million in funding to help homeless people in accessing transitional housing and support services, as part of next week’s state budget.
Although, Priestley does harbour concerns about the implications the housing department’s plans could have for the safe space. “We’re looking and wondering whether that is a multi-level government strategy, after which, the council will move in and try and remove us again,” he said.
Broad community-based support
It’s been six months since Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space has been providing meals, clothing, reading materials and support to the city’s rough sleepers. And the public support has been overwhelming, with donations being dropped off around the clock at the Martin Place site.
The safe space organisers are made up of volunteers from the ranks of the homeless community, as well as “people from various walks of life who come down and assist in various ways at the kitchen,” Priestley explained. “It’s very much about driving a broader community-based solution.”
The organisers have recently diversified their operations and have started furnishing houses that homeless people are moving into. Over the last three weeks, the group has fitted out 36 houses with donated furnishing.
“Our abiding plan is to ensure that we continue to provide the services we’re providing, given that there’s such a demonstrably broad need for them,” Mr Priestley concluded. “One way or another, we’re not planning on moving anywhere.”
Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space has an ongoing call-out for donations. They can be contacted on this number 0410 722 000 or on 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.