The Politicians “Uncomfortable” With The Homeless Are The Same Ones Keeping Public Housing Empty



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Earlier this week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that seeing homeless people in Martin Place makes her “completely uncomfortable”, then immediately tried to turn the blame back on the homeless.

According to Berejiklian, occupants of the tent city at Martin Place had all been offered emergency accommodation. Some had refused it (which she didn’t think was “appropriate”), and as a result she seemed to believe the government’s responsibility was exhausted. She called on Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore to “do what’s in her powers to move them on”. Yesterday, Social Housing Minister Pru Goward said the tent city can “expect action” on Friday, aimed at removing the space’s kitchen and residents.

Apart from being heartless, this response completely misses the point.

The tent city at Martin Place, better known as Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space, has been in place for more than six months; it is a community effort, a coalition of people working to provide shelter, food and support for people experiencing homelessness. Before it became a tent city, it was located under the awning of a nearby building site, and offered actual beds, a lending library, and a kitchen space.

It’s a support service, and also a protest — part of the point is to make politicians, who work just across the road, uncomfortable. And in fact, they should feel uncomfortable. The politicians who’d rather not have to see homeless people are also the ones keeping large chunks of Sydney’s public housing stock empty while the waiting list stretches to 60,000 people.

These policies are not separate. Homelessness can’t be solved independently of housing policy, and vice versa. People experiencing homelessness firsthand have been saying this for years.

By their own admission, the Martin Place tent city residents are not simply sitting around waiting for offers of emergency accommodation. They’re asking that politicians “stop using homeless people as a political football and as tokens for their failed NGO partners to collect money with [and start to actually] come to grips with managing housing affordability”.

Emergency Accommodation Is Not The Solution Here

Addressing homelessness isn’t just about offering emergency accommodation. As actual people experiencing homelessness have been saying for years, this is much bigger. This is about how a premier who declared housing affordability a priority, nonetheless supports negative gearing and a public housing strategy that involves selling and demolishing perfectly good inner-city public housing in favour of vague commitments to invest in public housing further afield.

While access to emergency accommodation is important, being “off the streets” is not the same as being safe. As Homelessness NSW points out, the vast majority (over 90 per cent) of people experiencing homelessness are not sleeping rough. They’re way less visible — couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and drifting in and out of insecure accommodation.

So while turning up to a tent-free Martin Place might help Gladys sleep easier, it’s not helping the people she has a responsibility to as premier. There are very good reasons a person sleeping rough might turn down an offer of emergency accommodation.

The tent city occupants themselves wrote on Facebook that “the premier’s suggestion of emergency accommodation as an alternative is neither safe affordable or acceptable”. They cited the murder of Phil Antaw outside the Matthew Talbot Hostel earlier this year as an example of that lack of safety.

The housing department temporary accommodation is provided for about four weeks a year, typically in facilities with no cooking facilities. This is by no means a solution with many exiting [people] forced to re-establish themselves on the streets.”

If this is the response Berejiklian found “inappropriate”, perhaps it just speaks to the fact that, as tent city residents claim, “she is not known to ever have visited”.   

What Has The Government Done For Housing Affordability?

Let’s crunch the numbers on public housing in Sydney. The waiting list at present stands at around 60,000 people. The current waiting time for the majority of social housing anywhere near the CBD is over ten years; numbers improve marginally the further away from Sydney you go.

A report earlier this year revealed that a staggering 1,537 public housing properties sat vacant.

It’s not clear what’s happening to the majority of these properties. Some, of course, are likely unavoidably vacant, undergoing maintenance and the like. Others, like The Rocks’ Sirius Building, are in perfectly good condition, vacant only because the government plans to sell them off.

Supposedly, funds from that sale (likely to be lucrative due to the site’s harbour views), will go towards developing new public housing, but this remains a promise rather than a plan. In any case, that housing will be far from the city, unhelpful to those who need to remain near the city’s jobs, support services, and family connections.

In a similar vein, thousands of residents of Waterloo’s public housing towers will be moved out over the next few years so that the area can be redeveloped with new apartments and a train station. These residents have been told they can return, that more public housing will be built, but details about the timeframe and exact nature of the plan are scarce, and residents have spoken to media about their anxiety and sadness over the upheaval.

In both cases, Berejiklian’s government has been accused of prioritising its bottom line over people’s lives.

Pushing back against Berejiklian’s comments this week, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore slammed the state government and suggested the Sirius Building be opened to house the tent city residents. But as the debate between state government and city council quickly devolved into burden-shifting, representatives of the homeless community continued to point out that this too was missing the point.

“The mayor’s suggestion that the State hand over Sirius for another invasive Mission Australia-managed model will not be acceptable to the majority of Martin Place residents who do not want or need invasive management services,” tent city residents wrote in a statement on Facebook. They outlined a series of actually desired policy responses, aimed at targeting the broader issue of housing affordability.

This brings us back to the point of the Martin Place tent city — protest. The group of people gathered there are just the visible, vocal tip of the iceberg of people affected by homelessness and poor housing affordability in Sydney. They’re asking that rather than bickering and burden-shifting and abdicating their responsibility for empathy, politicians commit to addressing that issue on the whole.

We should listen to them.

Feature image: Sydney’s 24-7 Street Kitchen Safe Space

Sam Langford is a Junkee Staff Writer. She tweets at @_slangers.