A homeless tent city in the heart of Sydney was being dismantled Friday, after political wrangling over the plight of those sleeping rough in winter sparked criticism and new laws.
More than 50 people had been living in colorful tents erected amid the high-end office buildings and glitzy stores of central Martin Place, with the camp becoming the most visible symbol of the lack of low-cost accommodation in Sydney.
Tents belonging to homeless people are seen at dawn in Martin Place, which has become known as “Tent City”, in the central business district of Sydney on August 11, 2017.
Sydney council and the NSW government blamed each other for failing to deal with the camp, before the state’s Premier Gladys Berejiklian eventually pushed through a new law Wednesday allowing police to remove the tent dwellers. The law came into effect Friday.
“What we’ve seen happening here in the heart of the wealthiest city, in one of the wealthiest countries anywhere on the globe, I think is a pretty distressing outcome,” New South Wales Greens MP David Shoebridge told reporters as the tents came down.
“To respond to a homelessness crisis by sending in the police, threatening to arrest people and confiscate their last few possessions, I think that is a new low for politics in Australia,” he said.
Critics of the new law have also expressed concerns it could be used to break up protests in the city, but Berejiklian has stressed it was specifically targeted at “unauthorised activity” such as the makeshift campsite.
“What is happening in Martin Place is beyond protest because it’s unauthorised activity which is compromising the public safety of those most vulnerable but also the safety of the community,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week.
The camp was just metres from the central bank and the New South Wales state parliament in Australia’s largest city, which is ranked second on a list of the world’s least affordable housing.
The group of dwellers have camped out in Martin Place since the end of last year beside a building site, but more recently pitched the tents after the area was closed for construction.
Lanz Priestley, who has been dubbed the tent city’s mayor, said people were moving to a crowd-funded location indoors, after residents were asked by police to pack up.
“Our intention is to go indoors now… where everybody that ever has a need for safety, a roof or food, can go,” he said.
“This is not just for homeless people, this is for anyone that falls through the cracks.”
State officials said they had earlier visited the site 47 times since March, placing some 230 people sleeping rough in Martin Place in temporary accommodation.
Volunteer Belinda Percy, who has been helping out in a makeshift kitchen beside the camp that offers free food and hot drinks, said the residents would continue to get help.
“Everyone will be supported. Nobody’s going to left on their own. For the people who haven’t secured housing at this point of time, we will be looking after them,” Percy told AFP.
Social advocates warn Sydney’s high prices are placing more pressure on those struggling to afford a roof over their heads.
More than 100,000 people across Australia were reported homeless in the 2011 national census, with welfare groups expecting the most recent survey held last year to show an increase.