After 14 days of lockdown, 130 residents of the social housing estate Common Ground were released on September 15. During that time, residents were given little health or operational information. They were also over policed.
They formed the Common Ground Action Group (CGAG) in the first few days of the lockdown and campaigned for fresh food, ending police searches of their deliveries, the confiscation of alcohol, health assistance for those undergoing detoxification and a rent waiver.
CGAG also wants compensation for the eight residents illegally taken by NSW Police to the Concord Drug and Alcohol hospital before the lockdown. Legal Observers NSW is working with the residents to secure this.
Solidarity was shown to Common Ground residents over the fortnight from many individuals and organisations, including Amnesty International, NSW Civil Liberties Council, Tenants Union NSW, Shelter NSW, Legal Observers NSW and Melbourne Legal Activist Support.
Legal Observers NSW on September 10 condemned the “inappropriate policing”, saying the “sudden and poorly communicated hard lockdown” had “left residents confused and distressed”.
Mission Australia (MA) provides services to the complex which houses some formerly homeless residents, many with drug and alcohol dependence and mental health difficulties.
MA states on its website that it was “grateful to God to help [us] persevere through unprecedented times”. It must also grateful to the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme, which helped deliver it an overall net surplus of $23 million last year.
Common Ground resident and CGAG spokesperson Saffaa told Green Left that MA had “abandoned” them to NSW Department of Health and the NSW Police.
“The police have a difficult relationship with the tenants, [many] being victims of drug enforcement agencies and regular police profiling. We were treated like suspects, like criminals. If this building was in an affluent area, I guarantee you this [lockdown] would not have happened.”
The tenants want an apology from the NSW government, compensation for goods destroyed by police, justice for those residents who were taken off the site and a rent waiver for the period of the lockdown.
“We know MA is considering a rent waiver for affordable housing tenants, but not tenants on a government benefit. This is unacceptable to us,” Saffaa said.
COVID-19 cases are currently rising in the inner city suburbs of Redfern, Waterloo and Zetland. NSW Health said on September 16 that 12 people in three public housing towers in Redfern had tested positive.
So far the public housing towers, which are managed by the Department of Community and Justice (DCJ), have not been locked down. DCJ guidelines state lockdowns of public housing buildings are a last resort.
A number of on-site vaccination and testing clinics have been set up near-by at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, the Redfern Community Centre and Poet’s Corner.
Newtown MP Jenny Leong said on September 15 that given the critical role local organisations, groups and services are playing, they need more funding.
Inner West Council Socialist Alliance candidate Pip Hinman agreed, telling Green Left that over policing is counterproductive. “People do want to get vaccinated and stay safe, and helping that happen in a compassionate way requires a health, not a police, response.”
[Robin Elhaj is a resident at Common Ground and is a spokesperson for the Common Ground Action Group.]