Where are they now?

Jasmine Motti reports on the plight of homeless people
evicted from Sydney’s Martin Place

Homeless people who were persuaded to leave a camp in the heart of Sydney have accused authorities of abandoning them to sleep out in the cold.

The NSW government promised permanent or temporary housing to all residents of the “tent city” in Martin Place when it cleared the site last August. But homelessness support organisations say the services provided to date have been no better than “a Band Aid on an open wound”.

The scores of people who occupied the collection of tents that sprung up in Martin Place last year were among more than 400 rough sleepers counted in the City of Sydney council area in February 2017. Across Australia, more than 116,000 people were homeless on Census night in 2016, according to statistics released last month.

Former tent city residents are despairing and frustrated. As one, who gives his name as Nick, says: “I bet you wouldn’t last a day out here. Try live we live, and you’ll be angry too.”

After weeks of efforts by the NSW government to persuade them to move on, residents left Martin Place voluntarily, hours before a police deadline which would have seen them forcibly evicted. The government had described the tent city as a “public nuisance” in the city centre.

Former Martin Place “tent city” resident Nick

One homelessness support group, the Western Sydney City Alliance, is critical of the help provided to people such as Nick. According to the Alliance’s founder, Quarrar El Askar, they lack satisfactory shelter, sufficient food, and even staples such as toiletries.

“There is no support base from the City of Sydney,” he says. ‘The homeless initiatives by the City of Sydney are very much inadequate. There isn’t a proper refuge.”

Mr El Askar adds: “We can’t solve the issue at its core. We can essentially trim the branches, but we can’t take it out of its roots.”

The NSW government, in the 2017-18 Budget, is providing more transitional housing for rough sleepers. New funding of $20 million over four years will finance an additional 120 properties and support packages, according to Melissa Hills, from the Family and Community Services (FACS) department. More than 250 people are expected to benefit.

Ms Hills says that FACS provides temporary accommodation to anyone in NSW at imminent risk of homelessness. In 2016-17, the department helped nearly 25,000  people.

Homeless person Joe in Martin Place

However, former Martin Place residents are frustrated and angry. Some point out that, like many people, they used to have homes and jobs, and they claim authorities have given up on them. A smaller group has re-assembled in Martin Place, where Western Sydney City Alliance operates a soup kitchen

When she ordered the tents cleared, Premier Gladys Berejiklian insisted those on the site “be treated compassionately, respectfully and in a way which will help them”.

But Mr El Askar said the assistance provided was only a temporary fix. “It’s like putting a Band Aid on an open wound.”

Western Sydney City Alliance is continuing to support former Martin Place residents by running the soup kitchen and providing them with toiletries. Its staff are all volunteers. We don’t get paid to do this,” says Mr El Askar. “The money we do get which isn’t from the government goes towards the [support] programs.”

Ms Hills acknowledges that temporary housing is not an ideal solution. “The  sooner people enter into permanent housing with support, the higher the chance that they will not return to homelessness,” she says.

Homelessness organisations note that many people become homeless through circumstances beyond their control, such as losing their job. As Nick, formerly of the tent city, observes: “It could happen to you one day.” – @jasminemotti, editing by Kathy Marks