Tents in the city


It is Fri­day af­ter­noon, and a scrum of 20 cam­era op­er­a­tors and jour­nal­ists are fight­ing for po­si­tion to in­ter­view the NSW min­is­ter for so­cial hous­ing, Pru Goward, who is in Syd­ney’s Martin Place for a press con­fer­ence and photo-op with her staff. Goward had ear­lier traded barbs with Syd­ney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, over who was re­spon­si­ble for re­mov­ing the tents that many home­less peo­ple had set up in the cen­tre of the city. In­ter­est in the story was high.

Bands of jour­nal­ists are stalk­ing the area and pick­ing off res­i­dents for in­ter­views in front of pass­ing of­fice work­ers and on­look­ers. Mean­while, a dozen NSW Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices staff mem­bers in red bean­ies are roam­ing be­tween the tents and sign­ing up peo­ple for hous­ing, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of blood cells drawn to a wound. When one of them joins a client at the en­trance of her tent, the me­dia pack de­scends, crowd­ing in with cam­eras and mi­cro­phones as she tries to un­zip the door. The public ser­vants, no­to­ri­ously me­dia-averse, whis­per to one an­other and ner­vously look around be­fore gen­tly guid­ing their client away from the scene. Then, apro­pos of al­most noth­ing, Sen­a­tor Sam Dast­yari ap­pears, gives a brief head nod to three be­mused journos and starts film­ing a so­cial me­dia video be­fore promptly leav­ing. Back near the Hous­ing NSW ta­bles, Goward is con­fronted by the so-called Mayor of Martin Place, Lanz Pri­est­ley, for an im­promptu public de­bate. Five or six cam­era op­er­a­tors, sensing a fight, rush back from the tents to join the rest of the pack.

Troy, 18, the youngest in the camp, stands in the mid­dle of the square with his arms crossed, watch­ing from a safe dis­tance.

“A cir­cle of cam­eras here, just on her,” he says. “And only just be­cause she’s, like, the gov­er­nor? What are the peo­ple of Aus­tralia gonna say when they see these peo­ple back on the streets in a week’s time?”

The peo­ple of Aus­tralia had plenty to see and say dur­ing the week or so that the tent city spent in the na­tional spot­light early last month. Sixty home­less peo­ple sleep­ing in 40 tents pitched in the shadow of the Re­serve Bank of Aus­tralia build­ing, near the con­struc­tion site for the 33-storey, $300 mil­lion flag­ship devel­op­ment for two of Syd­ney’s big­gest prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, and just a few blocks from Par­lia­ment House, was al­ways go­ing to draw at­ten­tion.

The group had ac­tu­ally been in Martin Place since De­cem­ber, when they oc­cu­pied just a small kitchen and some mat­tresses be­neath the walk­way of the con­struc­tion site. This it­er­a­tion lasted un­til June, when they were evicted by the City of Syd­ney with a let­ter declar­ing them a “public nui­sance” and coun­cil staff loaded their gear into trucks parked be­neath a ban­ner ad­ver­tis­ing the up­com­ing CEO Sleep­out. Days later, a new hoard­ing was in­stalled to close off the area, com­plete with an artist’s de­pic­tion of the fu­ture sky­scraper.

In many ways, the evic­tion was a bless­ing for the tent city res­i­dents: the new hoard­ing, painted in black, gave them a large chalk­board to work with and, more im­por­tantly, pushed them into a po­si­tion of promi­nence in the square.

Pri­est­ley, 72, is an ac­tivist with con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence, op­pos­ing frack­ing and apartheid, or­gan­is­ing squats in Lon­don and Brazil, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in Oc­cupy Syd­ney. He un­der­stands the sym­bol­ism of Martin Place, and con­stantly refers back to the big­ger pic­ture of home­less­ness, of which there is plenty to dis­cuss. To cite a few statis­tics: Home­less­ness NSW says the tent city com­mu­nity com­prises just 0.2% of the 28,000 peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness in the state. At least 400 peo­ple now sleep rough in the City of Syd­ney area, and many of these peo­ple, along with 60,000 oth­ers, are on the tenyear wait­ing list for public hous­ing. Mean­while, cri­sis ac­com­mo­da­tion is at 90% ca­pac­ity and af­ford­able pri­vate ren­tals for peo­ple on low in­comes are ef­fec­tively zero. When­ever some­one leaves the camp, they are im­me­di­ately re­placed – Pri­est­ley says at least 800 peo­ple passed through the tents within six months.

Pri­est­ley is clearly the tent city’s chief de­ci­sion-maker. He tells me that the camp is en­tirely crowd­funded and backed by a mys­te­ri­ous sup­port group of lawyers, donors and vol­un­teers, as well as some­one han­dling me­dia alerts out of Mon­key Mia in re­mote West­ern Aus­tralia. Pri­est­ley is af­fa­ble, en­gag­ing, and able to de­liver long, ex­ple­tive­filled mono­logues about the cause and his role in it, as well as the “poverty in­dus­try” and the “zero-prob­lem so­lu­tion” to home­less­ness.

“This ac­tu­ally needs to be dealt with na­tion­ally,” he says dur­ing a typ­i­cal stump speech.

As the face of the tent city, Pri­est­ley has seen his past be­come public record. It’s re­ported that he is a fa­ther of 12 chil­dren (“from ages 47 to zero”, he tells me), with the youngest born to his 20-year-old part­ner, Nina Wil­son, who at one stage was also sleep­ing at the camp. The Daily Tele­graph prints his photo on the front page with the head­line ‘Wel­come to our night mayor’. The Aus­tralian de­tails his “long crim­i­nal his­tory” in Aus­tralia and New Zealand, as well as his sup­posed links to an “anti-medicine cult”. Of­fi­cial records ob­tained by the pa­per re­veal that Pri­est­ley – real name Rutene Lance­forde Pri­estly – is only 59 years old. He de­nies this is true.

Be­neath Pri­est­ley is a lead­er­ship group, of sorts: Nigel, who is os­ten­si­bly the sec­ond-in-com­mand; Rewi, who oc­ca­sion­ally fronts the me­dia; and a few oth­ers. There are the camp chefs, Danny and Rosie, and a long­haired se­cu­rity guard with ti­ta­nium knees and black belts in sev­eral mar­tial arts who is de­scribed by Blake, the in­de­pen­dent film­maker doc­u­ment­ing the tent city, as “ba­si­cally like a home­less Jean-Claude Van Damme”. And then there are the res­i­dents, who all have sto­ries to share about the re­al­i­ties of home­less­ness. Some only come out of their tents at night, once the daily traf­fic has sub­sided, while oth­ers are more ac­tive in com­mu­nal life and seem to make at least ten­ta­tive gains from the place.

Troy, for ex­am­ple, is a smart and over­con­fi­dent kid with a pre­vi­ous ice ad­dic­tion, no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion and six months spent on the street. He also has a baby on the way, and ap­pears to be learn­ing to carry that weight – do­ing odd jobs around the camp, speak­ing up dur­ing group meet­ings, and help­ing peo­ple set up tents or get es­tab­lished when they first ar­rive. Like many in the tent city, he is scep­ti­cal about ap­ply­ing for tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion, know­ing from bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence that it can be an in­ten­sive process that of­ten leads nowhere.

“This place has got more peo­ple off the street than [the coun­cil] and the [state] gov­ern­ment com­bined,” Troy says. “The sooner peo­ple un­der­stand that, the bet­ter.”

In one sense, this speaks to the tent city’s ef­fec­tive­ness as a po­lit­i­cal move­ment. De­spite hav­ing a ten-year wait­ing list, the NSW Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices says it per­ma­nently housed 88 peo­ple from the tent city and vis­ited Martin Place 49 times since March 2017. For com­par­i­son, it vis­ited the rest of the Syd­ney district 70 times dur­ing the same pe­riod. But an­other view, spread by Premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian and re­peated in sec­tions of the me­dia, is that the camp is merely a dis­trac­tion from the “gen­uine home­less”. One can ei­ther be a rough sleeper or a pro­tester, ap­par­ently, but not both. “We do feel for the gen­uinely home­less, but if they’re just try­ing to get on TV, then, we don’t,” Chan­nel Seven pre­sen­ter Sam Army­tage said while con­clud­ing a panel dis­cus­sion about the camp on Sun­rise.

The tent city’s week in the spot­light prompted a power strug­gle be­tween the City of Syd­ney led by Clover Moore (who used the camp as a bar­gain­ing chip dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the state gov­ern­ment) and Premier Bere­jik­lian (who set the tone early when she said the home­less made her “com­pletely un­com­fort­able”).

After sev­eral days of bick­er­ing be­tween the two lev­els of gov­ern­ment, Moore an­nounced out­side Town Hall that she had struck a deal with Pri­est­ley: the camp would move vol­un­tar­ily into a tem­po­rary “safe space” while the City of Syd­ney looked for a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion. It ap­peared, for a brief mo­ment, that the sit­u­a­tion might have an am­i­ca­ble end. What the me­dia wasn’t told was that this deal had only been fi­nalised a few min­utes prior to the press con­fer­ence, which was why Moore seemed hazy on some of the de­tails and Pri­est­ley un­ex­pect­edly ap­peared at the bot­tom of the steps. Caught off-guard and sur­rounded by a me­dia pack, he con­tra­dicted Moore by in­sist­ing the safe space in­cluded sleep­ing fa­cil­i­ties, and that he “would spend months, if nec­es­sary” push­ing for a bet­ter out­come. It was a pro­found mis­cal­cu­la­tion.

Pri­est­ley’s state­ment added to the sense of chaos, ef­fec­tively tor­pe­do­ing the nar­ra­tive of com­pro­mise with the City of Syd­ney, and pro­vid­ing an op­por­tu­nity for the Bere­jik­lian gov­ern­ment to force­fully in­ter­vene. Within 48 hours, the state gov­ern­ment had rushed new laws through par­lia­ment, giv­ing it the power to evict the tent city res­i­dents from Martin Place.

Shortly after meet­ing with the City of Syd­ney, Pri­est­ley re­turned to the camp to ex­plain, for the first time, the de­tails of the agree­ment to the res­i­dents. Although he in­sisted the tents would stay, the news bul­letins told a dif­fer­ent story. The mood among the tent city res­i­dents quickly frayed. Peo­ple paced around the camp, con­fused and ag­i­tated.

“Why doesn’t some­one tell us the fuck­ing truth?” de­manded Peter, who had only just re­turned from one night in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion.

After a short group meet­ing, word spread that Moore would be com­ing down to sign the agree­ment in per­son. Two of her staffers ar­rived at 9 pm with the doc­u­ment, ac­com­pa­nied by TV crews. What the cam­eras didn’t cap­ture, be­cause they were point­ing the other way, was 200 food-stressed peo­ple, in­clud­ing most of the tent city res­i­dents, lin­ing up be­side the food vans serv­ing that night’s meal in the square be­low. While the res­i­dents were pre­oc­cu­pied, a farce of “com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion” was tak­ing place above them.

Pri­est­ley read out the doc­u­ment for the ben­e­fit of the cam­eras.

“Is that OK with ev­ery­one here?” he asked, wav­ing the page around in the air.

After an in­ter­minable si­lence, two of the hand­ful of tent city res­i­dents present yelled “yeah”, and Pri­est­ley snapped to at­ten­tion. “OK, I’m sign­ing it!”

A few days later the tents fi­nally came down amid an­other me­dia frenzy, with Pri­est­ley fronting the cam­eras for one fi­nal ver­bal blast.

“[The NSW gov­ern­ment] de­cided the op­tion they should use was to im­ple­ment, with haste, some of the most dra­co­nian laws this state has ever seen.”

With the kitchen be­ing dis­man­tled around him, Troy an­nounced that he had found a per­ma­nent place, an apart­ment with enough room for his wife and baby.

Troy held up the keys for ev­ery­one to see and said he had al­ready had his first night in­doors.

“It’s weird be­ing in four walls, bro, hav­ing a door and a place where you sleep.”

Many other res­i­dents were not so lucky, in­stead re­turn­ing to the dis­con­cert­ing cy­cle of mov­ing be­tween couches, the street and an oc­ca­sional night in gov­ern­ment­funded tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion.

the mail in west­ern New South Wales, be­fore set­tling in Mar­ree with his Abo­rig­i­nal wife. When Mathew takes off his sun­glasses I no­tice his eyes are emer­ald green.

Like her cousin Mathew, Co­rina Jenk­ins has trav­elled from her home in Port Au­gusta. She pulls out her phone to show me a photo of a plaque re­count­ing how in 1900 Khan Zada “astride a big bull camel de­liv­ered the mail from Bro­ken Hill to Wil­can­nia, a dis­tance of nearly 200kms, in one day!” Co­rina then shows me a photo of a let­ter sent in 1921 to in­form Khan Zada that his ap­pli­ca­tion for Aus­tralian nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion had been re­jected. “My other cameleer great-grand­fa­ther [Dadleh Balooch, from Baluchis­tan in present-day Pak­istan] was al­lowed to stay be­cause he mar­ried a white girl,” she ex­plains.

Nowhere on the Aus­tralian fron­tier was too re­mote to be seg­re­gated, and Mar­ree’s camel yards, now a sandy clear­ing be­tween cor­ru­gated-iron shacks, is part of what was known as “Ghan­town”. The area used to be sep­a­rated from the rest of the com­mu­nity by train tracks and a turn­stile some­times smeared with pig fat to keep the Mus­lims in their place. The Abo­rig­i­nal part of town was fur­ther back in the desert.

As night falls, the crowd builds. Here’s big Ab­dul Sul­tan, a for­mer steel­worker from Whyalla; there’s big­ger “Butch” Be­jah, the grand­son of Be­jah Dervish (a sergeant in the Bri­tish In­dia army) and son of Jack Be­jah (a mem­ber of Cecil Madi­gan’s 1939 ex­pe­di­tion that gave the Simp­son Desert its name). Rick Dadleh in­tro­duces him­self and tells me that the camel yards were once home to an es­tab­lish­ment known as “Deano’s Casino”. It was owned by his late great-un­cle Dean and fa­mous for drink­ing ben­ders and two-up, for­ti­fied by cha­p­at­tis, damper and curry.

Some­where be­hind the camel yards in the dun­coloured scrub lie the foun­da­tions of Aus­tralia’s ear­li­est recorded mosque, be­lieved to have been built in the 1860s, but no one seems to know ex­actly where. A 1980s re­con­struc­tion sits op­po­site the road­house. Built of hard­wood posts, mud and thatch, it looks like a gi­ant na­tiv­ity scene with­out the fig­urines.

Within the space of a few gen­er­a­tions, the de­vout first gen­er­a­tion of cameleers had given way to some­thing uniquely Aus­tralian, en­com­pass­ing Abo­rig­i­nal, Euro­pean and out­back cul­ture. No­body at the din­ner iden­ti­fies as Mus­lim, but Mathew tells me his grand­mother would never whis­tle, believ­ing it for­bid­den by Is­lam. One woman tells me of a man here tonight who drinks al­co­hol but doesn’t eat pork. (“I didn’t know that,” says an­other cameleer de­scen­dant, over­hear­ing our con­ver­sa­tion. “I brought heaps of ba­con for to­mor­row morn­ing.”)

Be­neath a full moon and be­fore a crowd of per­haps 70 (made up of cameleer de­scen­dants and their friends and fam­i­lies) stands Reg Dodd, an Arabunna el­der who worked on the rail­ways with many peo­ple here. He strums a gui­tar while singing cow­boy dit­ties, Johnny Cash cov­ers and – with an­other for­mer rail­way worker, Larl Zada, on ac­cor­dion – the old Afghan love song ‘Khala Khala’.

Reg stops play­ing when the cur­ries are brought out along with steam­ing bowls of rice and flat­bread. “Al­right, you fel­las at the back,” he says, lean­ing into the mic. “Come have a feed.”

Later, I talk with Larl Zada, who once had to dress as an “Afghan guard” for pas­sen­gers on the Ghan. I ask him if the curry is camel. He replies, with a se­ri­ous air, “You gotta be kid­din’!” The cameleers, ex­plains Larl, didn’t eat their best mates.

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