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Just prior to the eviction of the tent city community from Martin Place, the Premier Gladys Berejiklian stated that “it was unsafe for people to be sleeping on concrete in Martin Place.” One wonders if that same statement applies to the forty odd men who regularly sleep on concrete in Tom Uren Square in Woolloomooloo and have been doing so for the past two decades. They don’t even have the luxury of a tent to keep them dry.

Unlike the homeless of Wolloomooloo, who are well hidden from the public eye, the Martin Place dwellers were obviously living on borrowed time, given the high profile exposure of their location. What the brouhaha over their eventual eviction did highlight was the constant buck passing between the City Council and the State Government in dealing with the problem of Sydney’s homeless.

Both seem to agree on the need for affordable housing but neither would appear to have a solution for the short term – that is providing a temporary safe sleeping space for those not accommodated in hostels. As was well demonstrated by Lanz Priestly and his crew in Martin Place, the homeless are more than capable of organising, feeding and regulating themselves, provided the space to do so is provided.

It’s not asking much and it remains to be seen if the Council’s promise of providing a temporary safe space in coming weeks actually eventuates or if the tent city simply springs up in another location. It’s a problem with which Clover Moore is well acquainted and has been so for decades, going right back to 2000 when she was the member for Bligh. In April of that year she wrote to the then Premier Bob Carr expressing her “extreme concern at Government inaction in the face of a growing crisis in the inner city— the crisis of homelessness.”

In her letter she emphasised “there is a crisis situation arising in Tom Uren Square, which has accelerated over recent months. There are approximately 30-40 people sleeping in the Square and environs.” She then went on to say “The Olympics are now only a matter of months away. I call upon the Government to compassionately and effectively address homelessness in Woolloomooloo as a matter of urgency. Tom Uren Square could be a case study of the effectiveness — or ineffectiveness — of strategies supposedly in place to deal with this pressing social problem.”

Needless to say in the ensuing years, the situation in Tom Uren Square has only got worse and is symptomatic of a complete failure on the part of both the Council and the State Government to address to the immediate dilemma of those sleeping rough. After years of inaction and promises of affordable housing, it’s taken the homeless themselves to come up with a solution – banding together in a tight knit community as they did in Martin Place.

Historically tent cities are nothing new on the Australian landscape and as early as 1851 Melbourne was home to a vast tent city known as Canvas Town, complete with stores, taverns and other basic infrastructure. It was the Gold Rush and the burgeoning makeshift metropolis housed thousands of immigrants who had arrived in search of the twenty four carat dream.

History has repeated itself at Martin Place, albeit on a smaller scale, but as a spontaneous response to an immediate problem. Tent cities are now a regular part of the American urban landscape, not to mention numerous other locations throughout the world, especially those housing refugees. Look out for a lot more canvas on the streets of Sydney in the weeks ahead.

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