Activists from the Homeless Persons Union (HPU) began occupying vacant properties in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood on March 30 in a protest at the lack of public housing.
The Daniel Andrews government had pledged to use the six government-owned houses to address homelessness, but they have been sitting empty for more than a year. The houses had been compulsorily acquired by the previous Liberal government to build the East West Link, which was stopped by mass protests in 2014.
In 2014, The Age reported that Docklands had become a region of "ghost towers", after an analysis of water use data "identified hundreds of apartments suspected of being empty in the CBD precinct".
A banner outside the protest house reads "25,000 people homeless, 80,000 empty homes”.
Joel from the HPU said: "Many women who try to access housing through the YWCA are turned away, which puts them in a dangerous situation. The government has a human rights obligation to give these women housing. We have a right to homes."
3CR's Green Left Radio spoke to Kate (not her real name) at the protest: "There are actually six empty houses on Bendigo Street. It's a very small street and there are six empty houses that had been compulsorily acquired by the state for the East West Link. The government has since been attempting to sell them back to their previous owners, but they remain empty.
“The government had also promised that about 20 of the houses they acquired would go to the Salvation Army and a charity of the Collingwood football club. But they are just sitting empty, and some of these houses have been empty for almost two years.
"We decided in light of the housing crisis and with winter coming that we were going occupy the properties that haven't been sold, to make a point about the lack of public housing and the need for public housing in Melbourne. There's no reason why the state cannot intervene to fix this crisis and charge minimum rent on all these unused properties.”
On March 31 the HPU organised a public meeting and invited the public to come along. Various organisations that work with the homeless, local residents, local councillor Stephen jolly and some members of the Greens attended. The meeting focused on the housing crisis, what is being done and what could be achieved for public housing in Melbourne.
The protest has a lot of local support. At the meeting, long term resident Keith Fitzgerald told the crowd: "It took years but we defeated the East West Link. I have read that on any one night there are 150 people sleeping rough. These houses should be opened to the people."
Kate said: "We've got massive attention already. In Collingwood we've got support from a lot of the activists from the East West Link campaign who live around here. A lot of residents have given us donations of food and asked if we need anything. So right now the local community is supporting us a lot.
"The state does acquire housing but they very rarely use it for public housing. They either give it away to community housing or to charity organisations like the Salvation Army to manage. This often means there are tenancy requirements, such as requiring people to attend their programs and paying higher rents. We want to avoid this, as people who are homeless often have very different needs from other tenants and shouldn't have to attend programs about their mental health and their other issues to get housing."
The occupiers of the properties have made these demands and refuse to leave until they are met:
• Immediate release of all information about the current ownership of all properties acquired for the East-West Link, with full transparency about all acquired land.
•The 6 unused houses on Bendigo Street to be made into genuine public housing and allocated to some of the 35,000 people on the public housing waiting list. Occupation will continue until the first keys are handed over.
• All unoccupied properties acquired for the East-West Link that are still in the government's possession to be added to the public housing register.
• Minister Martin Foley to come to Bendigo Street and be interviewed by people with experience of homelessness.
• The Andrews government to say how they intend to provide housing for 25,000 homeless people while there are 80,000 unoccupied dwellings in Melbourne.