'Come and talk': Sydney's homeless respond to 'uncomfortable' NSW premier

Rough sleepers reveal domestic violence, lack of permanent housing and being close to services among the reasons they camp in Martin Place’s ‘tent city’

Homeless residents of Sydney’s Martin Place have told the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to “come and talk”, after she said their presence made her “completely uncomfortable”.

Berejiklian said on Tuesday the “tent city” outside the NSW Parliament House – which contains a dozen shelters, a 24-hour community kitchen and an alcohol and drug exclusion zone – had not been constructed “for the right reasons” and should be cleared.

She told reporters in Sydney the residents had refused the offer of alternative accommodation and called on the lord mayor, Clover Moore, to “move them on”.

But on Wednesday residents of the Martin Place tents told the premier to come and listen to their stories.

Andrea, a survivor of domestic violence, told Guardian Australia she was sleeping on the Martin Place forecourt to be close to her son, who was in a nearby hospital recovering from an assault.

She said she was paying $350 a fortnight to live in crisis accommodation but occasionally slept rough in the city centre.

“I say [to the premier] go and get involved, and talk to the people, and try and get them a house so this place can go back the way it was,” she said.

“I’ve been four years sleeping in parks, and this is my fourth winter being outside, even though I have accommodation now. There’s no [domestic violence shelter support] at all. There was nowhere to go and no one to talk to. It was straight out on to the street.

“There are people here who need help and they have to go somewhere.”

Other residents took issue with the premier’s statement that they had been offered housing by the state government.

“It is true,” said one resident who declined to be named. “But it’s a bigger picture than just offering housing, because it’s only temporary. After 10 days they’re back out on the streets.

“For a lot of the people offered housing, they don’t have the transport to go there. They’re not turning it down for no reason. A lot of the places were too far out with only one kind of transport, they feel disconnected from essential services which are in the city here.”

Messages on the wall at Martin Place.
Messages on the wall at Martin Place. Photograph: Matthew Abbott/The Guardian

Tam, 38, used to work as a kitchen hand before being injured on the job and moving to the camp.

“This is where people feel safe”, he said. “Some of us have health issues. That’s why I’m out here.

“We’re not lazy. A lot of people here have jobs. They wake up here, they go to work, they come back here again. Because it’s too expensive to live.

“You hear everywhere on the news that Sydney is the most expensive city in the world to live in. If you look at the shops, all the prices of the food has gone up. Every year the private health insurance goes up. I can’t afford to pay it now.”

Dave, 54, suffers from arthritis and pays $460 a fortnight to live in a room he says is “about as big as a tent”.

“The bottom line is we need affordable housing,” he said. “You’ve got to understand – there are homeless women with children sleeping in cars or in the park every year. There are university students from overseas who didn’t realise it was so expensive here.

“Gladys and her team were here about four weeks ago. They were doing a piece on something else but we were saying ‘come up here and talk to us’. They wouldn’t.”

Tam and Dave said the camp is run with a strict no drugs or alcohol policy, and that residents are being unfairly blamed for fights.

“On Friday and Saturday nights, drunks are coming from parties and nightclubs, screaming and yelling and causing trouble. And the police are thinking it’s us, it’s the homeless people. But it’s not. We’re just here quietly sleeping.”

Blake Metcalfe staffs the free community kitchen, while another volunteer, Dean, is a chef. All the camp’s food and the tents are donated by the community.

“I walked past here about two months ago and I ran into somebody who was homeless who I hadn’t seen in two years, who I went to school with,” Blake said.

“I just got out of jail not long ago. I wasn’t homeless but I was on the verge of being homeless. I’m still on parole so there’s no point looking for work at the moment, so I just come here every morning and help out.”

On Tuesday, the family and community services minister, Pru Goward, told the Sydney city council it was failing public safety requirements in not removing the camp.

“I call on the mayor of this city to do so ... The public expect her to act,” she said.

Berejiklian added she did not think the camp was “appropriate”.

“I’m concerned that some people there are not there for the right reasons ... We have made sure that anybody who needs emergency accommodation is given that and unfortunately some people are choosing not to take that up that offer.”

Moore suggested the government could rehouse the Martin Place residents in the Sirius public housing building, and blamed the state government for “decades of inaction”.

“Instead of investing in more social housing in our area, they’ve kicked people out of their homes and sold them to the highest bidder,” she said.


Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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