Gladys Berejiklian seeks new powers to clear out Martin Place 'tent city'

Laws would allow property to be seized and require homeless people to move on if presence deemed a ‘public safety issue’

The New South Wales government will seek new move-on powers to clear out the Martin Place homeless camp, ignoring pleas from Sydney city council to avoid a heavy-handed response.

The premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced her government would introduce new legislation giving it the power to move on people from Crown land in the City of Sydney council area.

The legislation, to be tabled in parliament today, will allow the state government to take property and ask people to move on from Crown land if their presence was deemed a “public safety issue”.

The government expects the law to be passed on Thursday and enacted on Friday.

“This is a course of action I wish I didn’t have to take but it’s a course of action we have to take because to date the City of Sydney has not done what it had within its power to do and what it should have done,” Berejiklian said.

Berejiklian said the motives of some in the Martin Place camp were “not what they should be” and that genuinely homeless people were being “caught up and manipulated”.

She alleged the camp, used as a “safe space” and a 24-hour kitchen, was putting people at risk.

“This is 2017, nobody should be sleeping in a tent on the concrete in the middle of Martin Place – it’s not safe for them,” she said.

But the self-described tent mayor, Lanz Priestley, criticised the state government’s announcement. He said homelessness could not be dealt with by legislating the problem away.

“All the legislation in the world doesn’t solve homelessness, all the legislation in the world doesn’t solve housing affordability and that’s actually what needs to be done,” Priestley told Guardian Australia.

“Legislating a problem out of existence has never worked anywhere in the world and I don’t think it’s about to work now.”

Justin Brookes
Camp resident Justin Brookes says homeless people in Martin Place should be ‘moved to a safe place’. Photograph: Christopher Knaus/The Guardian

Berejiklian again blamed City of Sydney council for failing to deal with the camp, despite the council’s insistence it had no power to move people on.

“The City of Sydney has powers to deal with this issue today, they have the powers to deal with this issue weeks ago,” Berejiklian said. “Regrettably they chose not to use those powers.”

She played down concerns that such a law could be used to quell other protests on Crown land. Berejiklian said the legislation was clear and could only be used in instances where public safety is at risk.

The state’s family and community services department has been on site frequently and had found accommodation for about 70 people, Berejiklian said.

The Wayside Chapel, in the suburb of Potts Point, has been proposed as a suitable place for the Martin Place residents to access support services.

The state government’s announcement came shortly after the City of Sydney mayor, Clover Moore, had urged a peaceful response.

“I’ve been deeply concerned by the threat of heavy-handed action by the state government and the risk of a repeat of the scenes in Melbourne where police dragged vulnerable homeless people off the streets,” Moore said.

“The law hasn’t changed in the past week – the city still has no power to move people on and we still strongly believe that without long-term, supported and affordable housing we’re going to see more homeless camps across the CBD.”

On Monday night, Moore announced she had brokered an agreement with Priestley to voluntarily move the camp from Martin Place.

The camp was to be moved to another temporary safe space, before more permanent accommodation could be found. But doubt was cast on that deal because camp residents were given scant detail of where they were moving to and what support services were available.

One resident, Justin Brookes, 37, wanted to know their destination was suitable and safe, he said.

“We don’t want ifs and buts and maybes, we want clearance,” Brookes told Guardian Australia.“We want to know where we’re going and what’s the plan. Move us to a safe place.”

Dan Wichitakul
Camp volunteer Dan Wichitakul prepares soup for the residents on Tuesday. Photograph: Christopher Knaus/The Guardian

Another camp volunteer, Dan Wichitakul, said residents would be back out on the street if they were moved to an unsuitable location.

“If they have to pack up their tents, what are they going to do in this temperature? They’re going to be back on the streets again. We can’t just leave them now on the street, while we’ve worked so hard for them to be housed somewhere.”

Contributor

Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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