BY TOMMY BOUTROS
The dwellers of the homeless camp in Martin Place are refusing to move on despite Lord Mayor Clover Moore announcing on Monday night that she had come to an agreement with the camp leader, Lanz Priestly, that they would do so.
Ms Moore promised an immediate safe space would be provided within 24 hours, but after homeless campers realised that no accommodation would be provided, they revoked their side of the agreement, on the grounds of returning to worse conditions.
Ralph*, one of the people living at the camp said: “It is enjoyable here, nothing flash but we have what we need– food, a place to sleep and some companionship.”
The camp is supported by volunteers who provide food and bedding, but it has come under fire in recent months for being a “public nuisance” and claims that the site is unhygenic.
Ralph said: “These suits that walk past at all hour of the days don’t even give us a second of their time, and it’s such a small difference between us in my opinion, but we seem worlds apart.”
“So many of us were just like these corporate guys once upon a time, we have just fallen on harsher times. A wrong investment here or there, it’s that easy to lose it all.”
“We still have families, we clearly need it more than they do. If it doesn’t affect them directly then they shouldn’t have a problem with it, or a say in the outcome,” he added.
The push to move the camp out of the busy thoroughfare came to a head with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian warning the City of Sydney early Monday morning that if Council took no action, the State Government would be forced to intervene.
Homelessness NSW understands the situation at Martin Place is not ideal, but back the sentiment that it is more important for people to have somewhere to sleep and be safe, instead of worrying about how they city may looks as a result.
A spokesperson for Homelessness NSW said: “Communities such as Martin Place are not a satisfactory answer to homelessness, however no action should be taken to evict people until a suitable alternative is in place.”
“People sleeping rough are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community, many of whom have disability, mental health and other support needs,” they said.
Jenny Leong, the Greens member for Newtown commented on the issue in parliament.
“To have the Premier trying to blame the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore for not ‘moving people on’ demonstrates her complete lack of understanding and compassion when it comes to this issue.”
“There’s a tried and tested solution to addressing homelessness and that is using the Housing First model – an approach which provides permanent housing to those who are homeless as a priority,” she said.
Ralph feels strongly about the possibility of securing housing, saying: “It would be great to finally have somewhere to stay. But in truth, it’s not as easy as that. We are used to a sense of comraderie here, a sense of hand built infrastructure that keeps us secure. It’s not easy to find that when you’re living alone in a tiny apartment.”
Tom Webster from the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS), said that his staff has successfully moved some people out of their Martin Place residency.
“FACS staff have been to Martin Place on more than 35 occasions over the past few months to offer accommodation and support to people sleeping rough. In total, more than 135 people who were previously sleeping rough have been placed in temporary accommodation in recent months,” he said.
While Ralph understands that the various organisations are doing their best to try and improve the situation he believes it should be left alone: “When you’ve been on the streets, you begin to understand the gritty details of the struggle and you do with what you can get,” he said.
Jenny Smith, Chair from Homelessness Australia said: “We need significant Federal, State & Territory Government investment in social and affordable housing and urgent changes to tax structures so that low income earners aren’t forced to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table.”
“Homelessness can be fixed by providing adequate housing. 100,000 new public and community homes would make a real difference to housing the elderly, families and single people on low incomes.”
Lord Mayor Moore said: “I will not support moving homeless and vulnerable people from public spaces without being sure they have the support and housing they need to get back on their feet.”
Last week Ms Moore wrote to the Minister for social housing, Pru Goward proposing several strategies for addressing homelessness including re-opening the Sirius building (previously a social housing building); a 24/7 safe space in the Sydney CBD that provides food, showers and laundry facilities with support and links to homelessness services; and planning approval to be given for the extension of the City’s affordable housing levy across the entire local government area.
Ralph said he was happy with what the Mayor had proposed: “It’s tough out here, even when it seems like we have everything we need, we don’t get to see our families, and of course everyone who walks past assumes we are either drunks or drug addicts.”
“It’s not ideal being homeless, but we have to get by however we can. We get cold too, especially now, in the winter season. Sleeping out in the cold has never been fun. I just hope the government actually follows through this time.”
But Lanz Priestly, the spokesperson for the camp, has stuck fast to the final word that no one would move until accomodation was provided as part of the agreement.
On Tuesday, the Premier held a joint press conference with Minister Goward announcing that the State Government would seek to change the law, giving it the power to send in police to dismantle the homeless camp in Martin Place.
The Premier described the plans a “course of action I wish I didn’t have to take” and expressed that the government’s tough response was a result of inaction by the City of Sydney.
*Names have been changed to protect identities