BY ISABELLE BASTIAN
The NSW Government removed the homeless population from Glebe’s Wentworth Park in a similar manner to the mass eviction at Martin Place earlier this year.
The evictions took place approximately a week ago. According to Denis Doherty from Hands Off Glebe, some of the former residents of Martin Place, including their unofficial “mayor” Lanz Priestly, had moved to the Wentworth Park arches after the closing of their city camp in June.
A NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) spokesperson reported that FACS “undertook outreach in Wentworth Park from Monday 9 October to Friday 13 October, which has been done several times in the preceding months. FACS regularly conducts outreach services in partnership with homelessness services in order to assist people sleeping rough in the inner city of Sydney to find accommodation.”
Once sheltering tents and belongings, the arches of the light rail bridge over the park are now empty. According to a FACS spokesperson, “staff are not evicting or forcibly removing anyone from any park. FACS has conducted outreach at Wentworth Park with people who are homeless to offer temporary accommodation and housing. This has been done in conjunction with the City of Sydney and a number of non-government homelessness organisations.”
However, the only people at the site last Friday were two security officers. When asked, they confirmed the tents had been taken down and those who had been living there had been given temporary homes.
According to Mr. Doherty, “a 24-hour presence of security officers is employed to keep the arches ‘clean’ of people,” which he described as an “investment in enforcement instead of investment in people.”
A FACS spokesperson confirmed the security officer’s explanation by specifying that “29 people in Wentworth Park have accepted offers of temporary accommodation and FACS will work with them to access permanent long term housing.
“From late March to the end of September 2017, 156 people previously sleeping rough in Martin Place and Belmore Park have been housed in long term permanent accommodation.”
It is unclear what happened to those who did not find alternate accommodation.
There are concerns about the current housing affordability crisis in Sydney and fear that even given short-term housing, the former rough sleepers will not be placed in social housing before the free accommodation provided to them expires.
Mr. Doherty says that “the homeless have been promised 7 days’ free accommodation and a further month of free accommodation while a permanent home is found for them.
“We welcome good accommodation for all people but we suspect that this approach is just superficial ‘tidying up.’”
Since the evictions at Martin Place, many questions have arisen about the connected issues of homelessness and affordable housing. According to the City of Sydney’s latest street count, 386 people were sleeping rough in the city in August 2017 and another 600 occupied temporary and crisis accommodation.
While the number of people sleeping rough has decreased from the counts in both February 2017 and August 2016, the number of people found in temporary and crisis accommodation had increased by over 20 percent from February.
The City of Sydney also proposes an aggressive plan to improve access to affordable housing by 2030. In the last decade there has been a 70 percent increase in rents and around 15,000 households are on the Central Sydney regional social housing waiting list. The City describes plans to build affordable rental units in Ultimo, Zetland, Central Sydney, Pyrmont, and Glebe. They emphasise the Sustainable Sydney 2030 goal of having 15 percent of local housing be social or affordable.
Homelessness NSW, a not-for-profit organisation based in Woolloomooloo, agrees a two-pronged approach is needed. A spokesperson discussed the need for social housing as well as a task force to support those leaving prison, hospitals, and government sponsored housing to ensure they do not end up homeless.
“Internationally, other cities have grappled with high housing costs and increasing homelessness and the overwhelming evidence identifies that rough sleeping can be ended,” said the spokesperson.
But residents are still worried. Mr.Doherty said, “Where is the NSW Government investment in housing for the homeless and the services they need to live successfully in new homes?
“Instead, as the waiting list for public housing goes over 60,000, the NSW Government has sold off about 4,000 public housing places in the inner city and failed to invest funds in public housing. The actions of police backed up by the new laws is part of the process of preparing Wentworth Park for the new Fish Markets which will see the building of 2,760 apartments, not one of which will be for social housing.”