Clover Moore on re­spond­ing to Martin Place’s tent city

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Clover Moore

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.


CLOVER MOORE is the lord mayor of Syd­ney.

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