SYDNEY • A homeless tent city in the heart of Sydney was being dismantled yesterday, after political wrangling over the plight of those sleeping rough in winter sparked criticism and new laws.
More than 50 people had been living in colourful tents erected amid the high-end office buildings and glitzy stores of central Martin Place, with the camp becoming the most visible symbol of the lack of low-cost accommodation in Sydney.
The Sydney council and the New South Wales government blamed each other for failing to deal with the camp, before the state's Premier Gladys Berejiklian eventually pushed through a new law on Wednesday allowing police to remove the tent dwellers. The law came into effect yesterday.
"What we have seen happening here in the heart of the wealthiest city, in one of the wealthiest countries anywhere on the globe, I think is a pretty distressing outcome," New South Wales Greens MP David Shoebridge told reporters.
"To respond to a homelessness crisis by sending in the police, threatening to arrest people and confiscate their last few possessions, I think that is a new low for politics in Australia," he said.
Critics of the new law have also expressed concerns it could be used to break up protests in the city, but Ms Berejiklian has stressed it was specifically targeted at "unauthorised activity" such as the makeshift campsite.
"What is happening in Martin Place is beyond protest because it is unauthorised activity which is compromising the public safety of those most vulnerable, but also the safety of the community," she told The Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week.
The camp was just metres from the central bank and the New South Wales state Parliament in Australia's largest city, which is ranked second on a list of the world's least affordable housing.
The group of dwellers has camped out in Martin Place since the end of last year beside a building site, but more recently pitched the tents after the area was closed for construction.
Mr Lanz Priestley, who has been dubbed the tent city's mayor, said people were moving to a crowd- funded location indoors, after residents were asked by police to pack up.
"Our intention is to go indoors now... where everybody who has a need for safety, a roof or food can go."
State officials said they visited the site 47 times since March, placing about 230 people sleeping rough in Martin Place in temporary accommodation.