Homeless camped in Sydney's CBD are being used in a bitter political fight between the mayor and state government

Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

A woman in her 50s, dressed neatly in a cardigan and dress, has a look on her face familiar to all worried mothers. She’s just wandered up to the temporary kitchen in Sydney’s Martin Place feeding dozens of people camped nightly in one of the city’s prime business locations.

She has reason to be concerned. Her adult son was stabbed overnight, just beneath the heart, and she’s going to visit him in hospital later. She’s clearly shaken, but has another reason to be worried — she could be about to lose her home, because she’s one of dozens of people making New South Wales premier Gladys Berijiklian “completely uncomfortable” sleeping rough in the city centre.

But to the people currently living in public space surrounded by some of the nation’s most expensive real estate, their small patch embodies the city council’s motto “city of villages”.

The woman Business Insider spoke to, who asked not to be named, says everyone is looking out for each other.

“It’s a really great place,” she said.

“Everyone’s supportive and if you’re feeling sad, the people here really listen to your problems. They actually listen to what you have to say and try to help out.”

The camp has an unofficial mayor, Lanz Priestley, and she explains that there’s a “hierarchy” in place which filters down.

Those at the top maintain law and order.

“Sometimes people act up at night, but they move them along pretty quickly,” she said.

But tented camp that’s sprung up in Martin Place, not far from parliament, and opposite the Reserve Bank of Australia, has sparked a political war of words between the government and lord mayor Clover Moore over who’s responsible for getting ridding the CBD of what broadcast Alan Jones has labeled an “eyesore”.

Jones, who lives in the apartments known to many as The Toaster, adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, wants Moore sacked if she doesn’t deal with the issue.

The makeshift camp in Martin Place continues to grow despite attempts by the City of Sydney staff to dismantle the original version last month, which sprang up under hoardings around the former Westpac building.

Yesterday, the NSW government launched a campaign against Moore for failing to act, with family and community services minister Pru Goward taking the mayor to task on Twitter and in the media saying Moore and the council did not take its “public safety or compliance requirements seriously”.

Goward says FACS (family and community services) staff had visited the site 41 times to offer accommodation, and more than 60 people who were sleeping rough were now in social housing, but “some people have not taken up those offers for various reasons”.

But she also complained that it was “ludicrous” that “FACS had to apply for a permit from the City of Sydney Council to erect a tent to help those who were homeless in Martin Place”.

Goward said they spoke to everyone in a tent again on Monday, and pointed to the government’s $1.1 billion expenditure in 2017-18 on homelessness and social housing services.

“No one in Sydney needs to sleep in a tent, there is support available,” the minister said.

But she also expressed her displeasure with the sight confronting many MPs as they head to work on Twitter.

The current dispute is reminiscent of Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s CBD earlier this year, which led to a major debate over how to tackle homelessness in the city. When Melbourne City Council and police moved on the camp, it led to violent clashes and several arrests.

In Sydney, Gladys Berejiklian said she’s concerned some of the people “are not there for the right reasons.”

“That’s why we’ve written to Clover Moore asking her to do what’s in her powers to move them on,” she said.

The lord major said she was concerned, but “Virtually all the levers of power and responsibility lie with the state government”.

“It’s not illegal for people to be homeless — for some people it’s an inevitable consequence of the housing affordability crisis in Sydney,” she said.

Moore said the council was spending $6.6 million on homeless services over three years and helped more than 320 people access housing with support.

“City staff are actively working to keep Martin Place safe and clean but we have no power to forcibly move people on — only the Police can do that. But even if the Police were directed to do that, where does the Minister expect people to go? Putting them up in hotels for three or four nights is not an answer,” she said.

The Martin Place tented camp outside the RBA. Photo: Sam Jacobs

No doubt the camp has also been noticed by everyone at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Speaking at the Anika Foundation Luncheon last week, RBA governor Philip Lowe said that inequality in Australia had risen, particularly in years.

“Wealth inequality has become more pronounced particularly in the last five or six years because there’s been big gains in asset prices,” he said.

“So the people who own assets, which tend to be wealthy people, have seen their wealth go up.”

Lowe added that income inequality was also rising, but not to the same scale as wealth inequality.

Homelessness NSW said it had been calling on the government and council to stop the blame shifting for two years and take action to end inner-city homelessness.

CEO Katherine McKernan said that the number of people rough sleeping in Sydney had increased by 28% since 2011 — the year Goward became FACS minister.

A survey in February this year found 433 people were sleeping rough in the city, while crisis accommodation services were 90% full. An earlier check found that more than 60% of those homeless had health and disability support needs.

“There is a shortfall of over 100,000 affordable homes in NSW and to address inner-city homelessness we need an investment and expansion of social housing and action taken to make private rental more affordable for people on low incomes,” McKernan said.

“We need to see the NSW Government and City of Sydney stop using short term responses such as Temporary Accommodation and to start addressing the issue through providing long term affordable housing and support.”

In the last two years Goward has overseen the relocation of around 400 public housing tenants around Millers Point and The Rocks on the grounds that the heritage properties they lived in were too expensive to maintain. The government said the money from the sale of the properties, including 121 terrace houses, which have sold for upwards of $2 million each, will go towards additional public housing.

In June last year, there were 60,000 people on the social housing waiting list in NSW.

Photo: Sam Jacobs

Controversially, the government also removed tenants from the 1980s Sirius high rise, with plans to sell it to a developer, despite recommendations that it be heritage listed. That sparked a legal battle the government lost last week in the Land and Environment Court, which ruled former heritage minister Mark Speakman erred twice at law when he refused to properly consider the listing.

Clover Moore wants the government to reopen Sirius saying it would fix the current impasse immediately.

“77 homes are currently sitting empty in a building purpose built for social housing. This would immediately resolve the issue in Martin Place,” she said.

She also wants to extend the city’s affordable housing levy and is seeking government support to build a second “Common Ground” development in the city with 150 new affordable and social housing units including 50 specifically designed for vulnerable homeless people.

Blake Metcalfe has been volunteering at the Martin Place food stand serving breakfast. Today it’s bacon and eggs.

“It’s available to everyone, not just the people living here,” he said.

It’s Metcalfe’s way of saying thanks. He knows how this feels. Like went horribly pear-shaped when a relationship, the former sales rep blew his money on booze and gambling and ended up in jail for drunk driving. He’s now in temporary accommodation.

He shakes his head when told about the premier’s “unacceptable” comment.

“This is a community here, everyone’s just working together to help out,” he said.

Another bloke passing by joins the conversation, but declines to give his name. He’s been here for a couple of nights

“I just want to get back to Dubbo,” he said.

Martin Place is not a bad spot, except for one problem, no toilets.

“You either have to go downstairs at the train station, or there’s another toilet further down the road,” he said, pointing down Macquarie street.

He explains that you’re allocated a tent when you arrive at the camp, and during the day the camp volunteers do a check of who’s in which tent.

“You may have go give it back or swap with someone else,” he said.

If someone moves on, camp volunteers clean the tent and offer it to someone else.

At least they will until the government, council and police decide to move them all on.

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