By Lauren O’Connor
The homeless community living underneath Wentworth Park bridge had their belongings confiscated by police and the City of Sydney on Wednesday.
Up to 20 permanent residents living under the viaduct had their tents, furniture and tarpaulins removed by police acting on the authority of the City. Ten policemen and two council liaisons supervised the disassembly of the tents and the storage of ‘excessive’ belongings.
But the ‘clean up’ effort means many of those living at the park will have to find alternative accommodation and become reliant on availability of housing services.
They received notices that a clean up of their property would happen on January 19, February 4 and February 11.
Items such as tents, structures, cooking equipment, furniture and ‘hazardous material’ were listed as targeted for removal.
The reasons given in a release on February 6 were that the camps were a risk to the ‘health and safety of the public’ and caused ‘alienation of the public space.’
“Two fires and several hazards, such as cooking in tents, rat infestations and a build-up of furniture, have been reported in the past six months,” a spokesperson for the City of Sydney said.
“I regret that this is the course of action however the City cannot allow the continued accumulation of goods to the detriment and potential risk of others.”
Dean (surname withheld) has been living in Wentworth Park since last winter and said forcibly removing their belongings would take away privacy, security and protection from bad weather.
“It’s very difficult once again with the elements, mosquitos, security – there’s no privacy without the tents. We couldn’t go to sleep without worrying about people doing stuff to us at night, or have a shower or look for houses,” he said.
They fear the removal of all their belongings bar a swag and two carrier bags per person will mean they must leave the campsite entirely.
Police have visited the community regularly in the past month, taking the residents’ personal details such as name and date of birth.
“The council haven’t told us exactly but the police [said] they are going to remove us by force. The council didn’t say we have to go but by the way the police are coming down and intimidating or harassing us, they’re coming down to remove us by force,” Dean said.
The process began at eight thirty one Wednesday morning. The ‘arch dwellers’ had packed their belongings in anticipation for the clean out. Ultimo and Glebe locals and media outlets came to witness the removals, housing services were not present.
Aggie, a homeless woman originally from Arnhem Land says she’s seen no indication the presence of a campsite is alienating the public.
“All the residents want to know our stories, they come and sit with us…I still walk out and say hello, we do exactly the same as what the people do.”
“I don’t feel alienated from them and if I’ve made them alienated, which I believe I haven’t, I apologise,” she said.
Aggie said without the locals her sole belongings would still be the purse and the two changes of clothes she brought with her to the streets.
“If it wasn’t for the community, a lot of them bring us over clothes and things like that…I wouldn’t have what I’ve got. Now I’ve got about 12 changes of clothes,” she told City Hub.
A spokesperson for the City of Sydney said that there was a build up of items such as deck chairs, tables, a barbeque and a fridge in some of the tunnels. The city also claims there were complaints about noise, lit fires and possible cooking inside tents last year.
“City staff, along with specialist homeless-service workers, met with the rough sleepers to negotiate a solution to the issue and the fire risk, with the outcome being that each person would limit their belongings to bedding and two bags,” the spokesperson said.
Rick Herrera, founder of outreach program S.W.A.G ministries has been in regular contact with the Wentworth Park community and he expressed disappointment in the quality of homelessness services.
He said in the last two or three years a permanent community had become established under the viaduct.
“I’ve seen people come and go from Wentworth Park but probably the last year and a half I’ve seen them stay there more regularly. A lot of people have made it their home. Its pretty sad because these guys have reached the last, the final leg of their journey they’ve got nowhere else to go,” Mr Herrera said.
“Everywhere we’ve sent them the places are run down, they’re absolutely un-liveable. Rising rent and cost of living has forced people out; not being able to afford electricity…there’s so many reasons we’re seeing people on the streets now,” he said.