I have been deeply disappointed in how the City has handled the homeless community in Wentworth park this month. This community, along with the homeless in Belmore Park appear to be growing in number. My staff met with community members living in the viaduct arches to speak with those living there about their experiences. Many were deeply distressed at perceived threats by Council to remove all of their possessions from the archways.
Early last week when a clean-up of Wentworth Park was conducted City staff removed the tents from under the archways. I have spoken to senior staff who have cited illegal camping, fire safety and alienation of public space as grounds for removing the tents. They have referred to a previous incident where a homeless person set a tent on fire while cooking inside it, as a strong reason to remove homeless people’s tents.
While safety is important I feel that confiscating tents will do little more than force rough sleepers into an even rougher situation. These people are experiencing significant difficulties in their lives and the removal of their meagre possessions is the wrong response. Most of the people living in the park had very modest set ups which were placed to the side of the archways so that it could continue as a public thoroughfare. They have also received support from some of the local residents who have contacted me calling for the City to take a more compassionate approach.
This is a sad incident, however, it is also a symptom of the NSW Government’s failure to supply adequate public housing. The wait for housing is currently eleven years yet the government continue to sell off high value public housing such as Millers Point. I am yet to see them make good on their promise to use the proceeds of the sale to build additional housing. The sector has seen decades on underinvestment. There will need to be large scale investment across Sydney and NSW to have any chance of making a dent in the waiting list.
Meanwhile, the Baird Government’s new strategy on homeless support services has seen a withdrawal of funding in the inner city area. Although we are yet to see data on how this is affecting rates of homelessness the anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is growing. I will be looking at the results of the City’s upcoming February Homeless Street Count with great interest.