Rev. Bill Crews: Sydney's debate over homelessness has 'turned feral'

A homeless woman in Martin Place. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Reverend Bill Crews, who has been helping the homeless and disadvantaged in Sydney for nearly 50 years, has weighed into the debate over a makeshift campsite in Sydney’s Martin Place, saying it’s up to premier Gladys Berejiklian and her government to address the problem, rather than Sydney council.

The Liberal leader and lord mayor Clover More have conducted a bitter public debate over the past week about who’s responsible for moving on the 50 people who’ve set up camp outside the Reserve Bank of Australia, with both sides accusing the other of playing political games. Even NSW police chief Mick Fuller has joined in, saying “If one person puts a step out of line, I’ll throw them in the back of the truck,” should council workers move in and confiscate their possessions.

But at the start of Homelessness week, Rev. Crews, a National Living Treasure who began helping out at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross in late 1960s, and later founded the Exodus Foundation, a charity that assists homeless and abandoned youth, said homelessness in Sydney is the worst he’s seen in 40 years, and the problem has now spread from small pockets in the inner-city to the suburbs.

Crews says the debate over homelessness has “turned feral” and sought to dehunamise them and paint them as ingrateful and bludgers.

Reverend Bill Crews. Photo: Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)

Homelessness NSW says the number of people rough sleeping in Sydney had increased by 28% since 2011. A survey in February this year found 433 people were sleeping rough in the city, while crisis accommodation services were 90% full.

This may be Homelessness Week, but that didn’t stop Berejiklian and Moore continuing their standoff and slanging match over the weekend.

With the City of Sydney council due to meet tonight to debate the issue, the premier accused Moore of a “blatant act of politicking” on the Martin Place camp, saying the government “will take appropriate action to resolve this issue” if the council will not intervene.

“It is disappointing that vulnerable people are being exploited by a few people who are engaged in a political protest. The NSW Government is exploring all options available to it to resolve this issue,” she said.

Moore argues that the state government is responsible because the homeless people have camped on Crown land. She wants Berejiklian to reopen the Sirius building in The Rocks, a public housing tower block with 77 apartments the government has shut down to sell off to developers, to house the people in Martin Place.

“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.

Crews says that housing affordability and homelessness are separate issues.

Council attempted to dismantle the original version of the makeshift camp, which sprang up under hoardings around the former Westpac building, last month, but it was replaced by tents, across the road from the NSW parliament.

Last week, the premier complained that she was “completely uncomfortable” with sleeping rough in Martin Place.

Her comment infuriated Crews, who said she “ought to be bloody ashamed”, berating Berejiklian on 2GB. Here’s what he said:

Today Rev. Crews told ABC Radio Sydney that the problem is a state government issue and the better off should feel uncomfortable about what’s happening to the less fortunate.

“Homeless people are uncomfortable, and so society needs to be uncomfortable because we’re leaving them to kind of stagnate in the situation they’re in,” he said.

“What most people want is for them to be moved out of sight, not the uncomfortableness to be taken away… so the best chance they’ve got is actually being somewhere people can see the issues they’ve got and feel as uncomfortable as they do.”

Crews says out of sight is out of mind and not good enough.

“What happens with homeless people is they get moved from point A to point B, and then to point C and point D and then back to point A again,” he said.

Family and community services minister Pru Goward said removing the Martin Place camp was a safety issue for both the public and people living there.

“It is not acceptable to have people living in tents in the busy thoroughfare of Martin Place,” she said yesterday.

Staff from her department had visited the site 44 times and housed 70 people, but Crews says the accommodation was temporary and with strict conditions that would have seen the people in Martin Place back on the street next month.

Goward accused Clover Moore of “pathetic political point scoring”, but Crews says the government lacks solutions to a perennial problem.

“All they can basically do is go back to their ideology, and if there’s no answer in that, they’ve got no answer and you can see that in the state government,” he said.

Crews says the government needs to step in because the homeless need support beyond temporary housing.

“It really is up to the state government, essentially because most of the people there need a wraparound of services. Many of them have mental health issues, they have issues with their childhood and being abused… it’s not good giving someone like that 28 days in a house or room and then forcing them to move on,” he said.

“Evidence shows you provide all these services at once to people and 98% of them will be sorted out.”

Rev. Crews wants to see the government create a ombudsman or commissioner for homeless people to advocate on their behalf.

“In that way there’s a legitimate kind of path of government that’s pushing to make sure that homeless people get somewhere,” he said.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.