When the yuppies move in, they try to move everyone else out. ANGELA MATHESON reports on the gentrification of inner suburban Sydney.
When Stephen Goddard bought a combined house and legal practice in Surry Hills two years ago, he thought he'd got a bargain. A block from Oxford Street coffee shops and restaurants, and within walking distance of art galleries and the botanical gardens, he bought a central business district address for little more than the price of his old Petersham home.
Then he discovered the lane behind his property stunk. "The constant smell of urine wafted through my office window, and one day I found a human bowel motion sprayed over my roller door. I had to stand there in my work clothes and hose it off."
Goddard found he'd joined the group of new residents who, attracted by city lifestyles at affordable prices, are confronted daily with the realities of areas populated by growing numbers of homeless and dispossessed. And like many residents in inner city suburbs like Redfern, Darlinghurst and Pyrmont, Goddard decided his area should clean up its act.
"All I knew was there was something wrong and our streets were being taken over by the homeless", he says, listing residents' complaints of public drunkenness, urination in doorways, aggressive "psychotics" stalking the streets and homeless people falling into residents' hallways. "I said to my wife, if we don't do something soon about what is being done to us then it's the human condition to adapt to what's going on. And I didn't want to adapt."
So in January Goddard joined the newly formed City and Surry Hills Action Group — a collection of residents set up to oppose the redevelopment of Foster House, a Salvation Army men's hostel. The group calls for the reduction of welfare facilities, the relocation of the homeless mentally ill and extra policing. Its inaugural newsletter advocated the removal of the area's homeless "human scum", accused charities like the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul of competing for "the quite lucrative takings from the pension cheques of [their] clients" and warned, "The only shadow on a suburban idyll is the long one cast by those welfare joints and their clientele".
The newsletter created a furore in the media and much anger in the peace-loving Salvation Army, the Sydney City Mission, St Vincent de Paul and NSW Council of Social Services (NCOSS).
They fear that Sydney is going the way of alienated cities in the US, where small, organised reactionary resident groups wield disproportionate power and obscure real issues of economic inequality and the consequences of government cutbacks by scapegoating the homeless.
Such accusations outrage Goddard. "Give me a break. When we, the residents of Surry Hills, stood up and said that this is a welfare ghetto", he says, flipping vigorously through a large file of documents which show that west Surry Hills has 15 welfare facilities in four blocks, "we were called NIMBY [not-in-my-backyard], self seeking, into gentrification, unchristian and unhumanitarian.
"When you take on God you really get a beating, and we even had an Anglican church in Albion Street praying that our group would see the error of its ways."
Although the group has publicly backtracked from the sentiments of the newsletter and is now lobbying for adequate funding for support services for the homeless mentally ill — most of whom they want relocated to other areas of Sydney — the group believes it was justified at the time.
"That was written by our resident fascist, but let's say the newsletter had its effect", says Goddard, who works on the marketing premise that any publicity is better than none. "We weren't getting the attention we needed before we published it, were we?"
How does he think the homeless felt being called human scum? "I don't know that they heard about it."
In January, as a consequence of a public meeting between the welfare and resident groups organised by Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor — which, all parties claim, degenerated into little more than a public brawl — the Sydney City Council set up a up a special consultative committee to examine the welfare problems of Surry Hills. The report, which will make recommendations on welfare facilities, street drinking, alcohol free zones, public toilets and other issues, is due to be presented to the NSW parliament in the next few months.
LA in our future?
Welfare groups believe the recommendations could be a critical turning point in urban planning policies which will play a major role determining whether Sydney follows cities like Los Angeles, where wealthy communities live in modern versions of medieval gated cites which lock out the have-nots, or will opt for integrated communities based on tolerance and adequate funding for low-cost housing and welfare services.
"Just how representative of Surry Hills is this group?", asks the president of NCOSS, Harry Herbert, whose office is in the centre of the area's welfare belt. "Most people in this area are tolerant and compassionate, and I think in this case we're dealing with a small clique of residents who want to change the area to suit themselves."
So concerned is NCOSS that Sydney may soon embrace the economic ghettoism of many US cities that it has made a submission to the Sydney 2000 Olympic committee's social impact study calling for a special charter of rights — including rent controls, the funding of local projects to prevent inequality, housing impact monitoring committees and a tax to capture and recycle a share of the profits made during the Olympics to communities economically disadvantaged by the event.
Herbert's observations are backed by Salvation Army Lieutenant Colonel Ed Dawkins, who says many local residents he knows work harmoniously with the homeless and the Salvation Army on rehabilitation programs. "I don't want to think it's true, and yes it is terrible", he says. "But I think the underlying concern of many of this group's members is maximising capital gains on their properties."
The independent member for Bligh, Clover Moore, however, believes residents' concerns stem more from the proliferation of welfare institutions in Surry Hills which cannot cope with the mentally ill, than from garden variety gentrification which has eliminated low income earners from areas like Paddington.
"The Surry Hills community bears the brunt of caring for the health and social problems of the whole Sydney region", Moore says. "The community tolerates diversity, and many marginal groups have been accepted as part of the fabric of the area. But there are limits to the tolerance of a caring society, and these limits have been passed."
Moore says residents are legitimately distressed because of the steep increase in the number of mentally ill people who have drifted to Surry Hills since the closure of state mental institutions under the Richmond Report. She says constituents have reported mentally ill neighbours behaving violently and setting fire to their flats, increasing foul language on the streets and children unable to use parks because of discarded syringes.
In a censure motion against the state minister for health, Ron Phillips, in April, Moore spoke of the "dumping" of the mentally ill in crisis welfare accommodation in Surry Hills as "unconscionable" and a "scandal". She strongly supports the recommendations of the commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Brian Burdekin, whose 1993 report into mental illness and human rights called for funding of community health services and the integration of health and other services to meet the needs of the mentally ill.
"I do not believe this government should continue to shelve its problems by funding charities to create more beds for the new [mentally ill] homeless in overburdened inner city suburbs", said Moore in her censure motion.
The charities agree they are not equipped to handle the mentally ill, and the Salvation Army reports that 60% of its beds are now occupied by people in need of psychiatric care or backup. "It's a serious concern", says Ed Dawkins. "We get a lot of borderline people here from old style psychiatric services who just can't manage their medication."
But while the Salvation Army advocates proper state funding and care for the mentally ill, it is concerned that the problem is being used by resident groups as an excuse to wind back welfare across the board in the area.
The resident group argues that the proliferation of welfare facilities attracts the homeless, but the Salvation Army insists it is there to meet the demand created by scarcity of affordable accommodation in fast disappearing boarding houses in the inner city. Property development, slender funding for public housing and inadequate social security benefits compound the need.
"The homeless, mentally ill or not, always drift to the inner city", says the Salvation Army's senior welfare officer at Foster House, David Brunt. "This is a timeless and international trend. They are attracted to the area because of cheap eating places, accessibility of services in the city and hospitals, being able to walk about rather than having to commute — the reasons, in fact, many residents have for living in the area."
But most of all, says Brunt, the homeless will always gravitate to the city because of the anonymity it offers. "If you're homeless in a normal suburb, you're identifiable and immediately stigmatised", he says.
"What I'd like to know is ', says Harry Herbert "if welfare services in Surry Hills are going to be closed down, then what suburb is going to build new ones?" He points to the opposition of the resident group in Glebe which this year put a stop to the development of a halfway house for former women prisoners, and the fact that the United Church had to intervene in the development of Pyrmont to secure a proportion of public housing for low income earners.
"The resident group misses the real issues", says Brunt at his office in Foster Lodge, in the heart of Surry Hills. He believes the entire homeless population is stigmatised by some residents who overreact to the small group of people who are conspicuously drunk on the street.
Colonel Dawkins suggest the sensible course is to have culpable groups targeted in law. "I hate to sound judgmental", he says, "but the group who habitually lounge around drunk yelling at people, who have sex on the streets and urinate in public places really need to be dealt with. I wouldn't want to put up with it either." The Salvation Army points the finger at inadequate legislation dealing with public drunkenness, and sparse government funding which means it cannot keep proclaimed places, or "drunk tanks", open around the clock where chronic alcoholics can congregate out of public view.
"These are the issues which need to be addressed", says Dawkins, "instead of rubbishing all of the perfectly decent people who through no fault of their own have rolled up here homeless."
The men at Foster House are still recovering from being labelled "human scum". "Everyone was pretty upset", says former Foster House resident Graham Day, looking at the ceiling. "There are a lot of genuine people here who've made it back on their feet who felt degraded. We're clean and tidy, and we look after ourselves, and we're as opposed as anyone else to anti-social behaviour."
As a manic depressive administered incorrect doses of medication, Day lost his job and wound up homeless at Foster House a few years ago. The Salvation Army stabilised his medication, gave him a bed and treated him with respect. He is now living independently in Newtown and completing a TAFE diploma in drug and alcohol counselling. He says that without the Salvation Army's support, he would be on the street or in prison.
"The homeless are not who you would expect", says Brunt. "We had an airline pilot wind up here who lost everything after the pilots' dispute. Homeless people are typically those who've lost their jobs and whose marriages break down because of the strain. They're no different from you and me."
"Our aim is to treat people with dignity, raise their self-esteem and get them back living independently in the community again", says Brunt, whose state-of-the-art rehabilitation programs — which include specialist care, job and life skills training and drug rehabilitation — have decreased the number of homeless in the area over the past five years by 20%. From January to June this year, Foster House admitted 1282 homeless men, served 46,964 meals and ran at a deficit of $67,500, which the Salvation Army hopes to make up in the Red Shield Appeal.
Harry Herbert is keen to stamp out any public acceptance of the notion that the homeless are second-class citizens.
"Homeless people are citizens like everyone else and have a democratic right to choose to live in Surry Hills as much as anyone else", he says. "How would it be if the residents of Chatswood said they didn't want growing numbers of Aborigines there? That would be identified as racist and would not be tolerated, but the attitude toward the homeless in Surry Hills is the same."
Herbert warns that cutbacks in welfare are made at the public's peril and lead to more public homelessness, crime, alienation and what US urban planning critic and author Mike Davis calls "bag lady defence systems".
Davis paints a picture of Los Angeles, where two worlds live in one city, with restaurants denying the starving food secured in rubbish cans at their back doors in wire cages, and where the homeless are driven from public parks by sprinkler systems which switch on randomly at night. Wandering through Surry Hills streets you see the beginnings of this style of urban apartheid with the occasional custom-made iron fence jutting out on access steps to make sitting impossible.
Davis tells also of the fate of the affluent living in such a society, whose manicured properties are protected by high tech electronic surveillance and whose gated entries are guarded day and night by military-style patrols of armed security guards.
[This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.]