Kneejerk (re)action isn’t good enough

Jack de Groot, CEO St Vincent de Paul Society NSW

Away from the media frenzy of Martin Place over the last while, the Department of Family and Community Services, NSW Police and the City of Sydney has quietly descended on Belmore Park and moved on those who have been there sleeping rough.

This was done with a high police presence, without working with homelessness services in the inner city, without any assessment of the support needs of the people sleeping there and without any plan other than to place them in temporary accommodation (hotels and motels) and available housing. 

Vinnies understands that around 100 people have been housed with similar numbers being placed in temporary accommodation.  But already, we have had contact with some of those who had been housed. Some are back on the streets and some have been housed without furniture – that’s right – with not even a bed to sleep on.  We are also seeing many more people sleeping rough in other areas of the city. When asked they say they have moved from Belmore Park because of fear of police action. This means they have less access to our services like the Vinnies Vans and our bathrooms and clinics at the Matthew Talbot Hostel.  

The City of Sydney Street Count, undertaken only two weeks ago, identified around 1020 people experiencing homelessness who are either sleeping rough, in crisis/temporary accommodation or in hospital.  And rough sleeping represents only six per cent of the general homelessness population. We have a growing homelessness crisis on our hands. A crisis that can’t be addressed by quick fix and reactive responses that focus on inner city ‘hotspots’. 

All of this is while the NSW economy has been going gangbusters, according to the NSW Government. And the data seems to support their boasts, with a $4.5 billion budget surplus announced in May.

Charities and NGOs have been bearing the brunt of the increase in homelessness.  Demand for our services across NSW increased by 35 per cent in the last two years – we saw over 69,000 people in 2015-16.  We rely on donations from the public to fund many of our services.

We can’t end homelessness on our own. All levels of government must collaborate to address this issue.  We need Federal, State and Local Government action on affordable housing, including investment in social housing, and action on making private rentals more affordable.  There are over 60,000 people on the social housing waiting list in NSW and less than one per cent of private rentals in Sydney are affordable for people on low incomes.

Earlier this month the Society’s petition for inclusionary zoning was discussed in the NSW Parliament, calling for a mandatory affordable housing target of 15 per cent. While our petition was endorsed by the NSW Labor Party, the Greens and independents, the Government still shows little appetite for this initiative. This is very disappointing but we will continue raising our voice.

We will also continue raising our voice on the need for long-term comprehensive solutions to inner city homelessness – this includes resourcing affordable housing and support as well as commitment from the NSW Government and the City of Sydney to work collaboratively with homelessness services to develop and identify targets to end homelessness.  We should, like other international cities, be aiming to halve rough sleeping in five years and ending it in 10 years. 

Until Martin Place, Sydney was considered to be at the forefront of collaborative and caring approaches to rough sleeping – a response that was working with highly vulnerable people rather than one that intimidated them and made them feel at risk of their safety.  Let’s show Australia and the world what an economically prosperous city can do to support its most vulnerable by providing the resources for affordable housing and support services that help people access and maintain housing.