Tent city highlights plight of Sydney's homeless

Dozens have set up camp in heart of city's business district as calls grow for more affordable housing

In central Sydney's Martin Place mall - which is home to some of Australia's wealthiest banks and law firms - the plush office buildings have been joined by an unlikely neighbour: a tent city of homeless people.

Sitting directly outside the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the country's central bank, the rows of multi-coloured tents force streams of suited workers and curious tourists to delicately make their way through as they cross the city centre.

Outside a small camping tent, which contains a thin mattress and a thick army-style sleeping bag, Mr John Noon, 56, said he had been out of work for six years and has been homeless since he separated from his wife two years ago. He previously worked as a driver and has applied for jobs but said that "you get to my age and no one wants you".

"It is hard (being homeless)," he told The Straits Times. "But with experience, you can become comfortable. I know what I need to keep warm. A lot of people here have nothing - they are freezing at night."

The presence of the tents in such an iconic location has struck a chord in a city that is in the middle of a property boom which, combined with stagnant wage growth and surging power prices, has left increasing numbers of people struggling as house prices and rents soar.

But the tent city's days appear to be numbered. The New South Wales state government has declared it wants the tents removed, saying they are a hazard and an unnecessary obstruction.

There are some 50 tents, and a 24-hour free food stall run by volunteers at the tent city for the homeless in Martin Place, central Sydney. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN PEARLMAN

The government demanded that the City of Sydney council remove the tent city. But the council has refused and called for more public housing to be provided.

In response, the state premier, Ms Gladys Berejiklian, decided to change the law to give the police the power to override the City of Sydney and dismantle the camp. The state government's Lower House passed the law yesterday and the Upper House is expected to follow. Ms Berejiklian said the move was one which "I wish I did not have to take" and criticised the city council for failing to take action against the tent dwellers.

The tent city first arose last December at the top end of Martin Place, directly opposite the colonial-style state Parliament building. It features some 50 tents, as well as a 24-hour free food stall run by volunteers and boxes of books and clothing donated by well- wishers.

The City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Ms Clover Moore, has criticised the state government's approach, accusing MPs of taking action because they had to "walk by to go to Parliament". She said she had made a deal with the organisers of the camp to move the homeless to a "safe space".

Previous attempts to move the tents have largely failed, with the homeless people returning soon after being moved out.

Extolling the benefits of the tent city, Mr Noon said it was "safe, clean, drug-free and alcohol-free".

"We don't pose any threat to the public," he added.

Another homeless person, Mr Tam Nguyen, 38, who moved to Australia from Vietnam when he was three, said he previously lived in a public housing block where there were frequent robberies and assaults.

He said he worked as a kitchen hand and barman before falling in an accident. After that, he was able to work only eight hours a week.

Critics of the tent city said that one of the camp's main organisers, Mr Lanz Priestley, the so-called mayor of the tent city, has been using the homeless problem to promote an "anarchist" agenda.

Mr Priestley, who lives in the tent city, has insisted that he wants to find safe and secure long-term housing for the residents.

According to a count by the City of Sydney in February, the city centre had about 433 people sleeping on the streets and 489 people living in temporary crisis accommodation.

"People are camping in Martin Place because we have insufficient affordable housing for them," Dr Cameron Parsell, an expert on homelessness from the University of Queensland, wrote yesterday in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"The people may be inconvenient, but we need to respond to them by redressing the injustice that having no home represents."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Tent city highlights plight of Sydney's homeless'. Print Edition | Subscribe