Lack of affordable housing has led to an explosion in the number of people forced to sleep out and, unless there is massive growth in affordable housing, homelessness will rise even further.
The latest City of Sydney street count found that in February this year there were 948 homeless people in the city alone — a 28% increase since 2011. On the night of the count, the city’s crisis and temporary accommodation was at 91% capacity and there were still 433 people “sleeping rough” — the benign sounding official descriptor.
Businesses do not like the homeless “cluttering up” their footpaths. They want them gone. Governments also want them gone but, rather than finding solutions, the typical response is to move those without homes out of sight.
And so it was, in an echo of similar action taken by Melbourne City Council last year, that early on June 24 City of Sydney council workers and police turned up at Martin Place to evict homeless people who had been sleeping in a camp outside the former Westpac building for the past six months.
Before they were evicted, the homeless were handed a letter from the council, signed by director of city operations David Riordan, deeming the camp a “public nuisance” and containing a list of contacts for homeless services.
Of course, in the real world, the homeless have nowhere to go. Few would voluntarily sleep out in winter, even in Sydney and the rising number of people who cannot afford accommodation means that homeless services are stretched to the limit.
The homeless camp has been in Martin Place for months, since the Sydney 24/7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space established itself in December last year. Since then, it has been providing 400 to 500 meals a day and a secure place to sleep for hundreds of people a night.
Organiser Lanz Priestley, a long-time homelessness activist, said the street kitchen and safe space was initially established to protect vulnerable homeless women from sexual assault.
During the eviction, Family and Community Services and Housing NSW staff set up tents, where they offered assistance to those wanting accommodation. Housing NSW says it has “thrown out the rule book” and offered temporary accommodation to 115 people and long-term public housing for 24 more.
“As far as Housing goes, we forced them to absolutely come to the party,” Priestley said. “And they’re now housing people who have never in their wildest dreams imagined that they would ever be eligible for housing.”
Since the eviction, those remaining have moved to the other side of Martin Place and set up the street kitchen outside the Reserve Bank building. “They took what we allowed them to take,” Priestley said. “And when they put this [housing] deal on the table, I actually allowed them to take a lot more stuff than I would have allowed them to take.”
He said the street kitchen is still running 24 hours a day but, due to the provision of some accommodation, they only had five people sleeping there on June 24, and three on June 25.
For Priestley, the housing of these homeless people is a “huge outcome”. “But, it does nothing to make the problem go away,” he warned. “The problem is still unambiguously a chronic shortage of affordable housing.”
Assurances of ongoing help and support from the local council and state government did not necessarily ring true. “The jury's still out,” Priestley said. “We've still got a few people who’ve walked away traumatised from this, who haven't been housed yet."
Ironically, the area is still flanked by banners promoting last week’s “CEO Sleepout” — an annual fundraising stunt to draw attention to the problem of homelessness. A note, written in chalk in the near-empty camp said: “They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds.”