Opposition to Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Bill 2017

(Opposition to Bill, Wednesday 9 August 2017, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Bill 2017 is a mean‑spirited response to the uncomfortable sight of vulnerable people sleeping rough in public places, and I strongly oppose it. The bill will give police officers the power to move rough sleepers away from Martin Place and seize their tents and belongings. If rough sleepers move to another public reserve in the City of Sydney local government area, the Minister will be able to confer the powers for use there too. Rough sleepers can incur fines of $220 if they do not leave when ordered to do so.

The powers in this bill are broad and mimic the old public nuisance move-on powers. There is no link to public safety or interference, just sweeping powers to get rid of people who make people feel uncomfortable rather than encourage them to take action on affordable housing and social housing. If there is a genuine safety risk, police already have the power to deal with the situation and prevent the problem. It is not illegal to be homeless and the Government's own homelessness protocol makes it clear that government agencies should not move on people simply because they are homeless. While having homeless people in the middle of the city is confronting, it shows the scale of the problem. The ongoing tent city in Martin Place has drawn national attention to increasing housing unaffordability and homelessness.

The only solution to stop these vulnerable people from living in public spaces is to provide them with permanent, low-cost, supported housing. Over 430 people are sleeping rough across the City of Sydney, including in Martin Place, Woolloomooloo, Wentworth Park and Belmore Park. I regularly participate in the City of Sydney's homelessness street count and see the problem firsthand. The confronting thing for people is that it has been public, it has been on show in Martin Place. But I can assure the House that people are rough sleeping in caves and corners across the city in a desperate state. The number of people becoming homeless is rising and it is no wonder, with housing unaffordability in Sydney reaching crisis levels. Over half of lower income households with a mortgage are in housing stress and rental affordability is extremely low, especially for low to moderate income earners.

In blaming the City of Sydney, the Government is playing politics and trying to divert attention from its failures in working with the Commonwealth to make housing affordable and provide low-cost housing for those unable to afford the private market. Council officers have no power to move people on. The City of Sydney steam cleans the area of Martin Place three to five times a week and empties rubbish bins nightly. It has done six clean‑up operations since December, during which rough sleepers were provided with temporary accommodation through Family and Community Services and homelessness services.

The City of Sydney returned their belongings to them after the operations.

On 24 June rough sleepers were asked to move from their location in Martin Place adjacent to a development site to allow LendLease to enclose hoardings and protect construction workers and the public. This was done only after extensive notification and together with Family and Community Services [FACS] officers to ensure access to temporary accommodation for residents. Sixty-two of those who were sleeping rough have been permanently housed. During all of these operations, police did not exercise their powers to remove people who obstructed council officers or to remove all items, and the kitchen and some bedding and structures remained. About 40 tents have since set up in Martin Place and the City of Sydney, FACS and homelessness services continue to visit the area and talk with rough sleepers about their options.

The City of Sydney sought a meeting with FACS and police on 25 June and the Lord Mayor met with Minister Goward and the Commissioner of Police on Friday to discuss a way forward. The Government's focus has been for the City of Sydney to use its powers to remove structures, but dismantling the camp will only move the problem elsewhere, including to Woolloomooloo where local residents are already confronted with a long history of rough sleeping and to Belmore Park where there are already people with nowhere to live. I agree with the Lord Mayor that moving homeless people from public spaces without certainty of housing and associated support will further harm already vulnerable people and simply lead them to relocate or return to Martin Place.

The Lord Mayor met with Lanz Priestley from the tent city who spoke on behalf of those sleeping rough at Martin Place and they agreed that the group would dismantle tents if safe space is found in another central business district [CBD] location. On Monday night the City of Sydney council resolved to allocate $100,000 towards this space and set it up with the Government. The Government says it will set up a 24-hour safe space in the Wayside Chapel, however the arrangements remain unclear. The City of Sydney has also spoken with the Government to set up a temporary safe space together in the Sydney CBD until a permanent solution is found. The Government has not responded to this offer. I ask the Government, what is the hurry in enacting these powers and asking police to move people on when solutions have already been offered?

I understand why some tent city residents do not want to accept temporary accommodation given that hostels and refuges are full and they have food and clothing and feel safe at Martin Place. After their few days off the street, they will be back in the same situation but they will have to set themselves up all over again. Housing is a State and Federal government responsibility, yet the City of Sydney has a dedicated and well‑respected Homelessness Unit. It is the only council in the State to have one. The City of Sydney has committed $4.2 million over the next three years to fund outreach services and deliver Connect 100 and Common Ground, services that house and support people who are experiencing homelessness in the inner city. The City of Sydney's public spaces officer works with rough sleepers to link them up to services and resolve conflicts with other people.

The City of Sydney and the New South Wales Government have worked cooperatively on homelessness for many years. The State Government must cease this blame game and focus on the many things it can do to solve the housing crisis. Large developments like Barangaroo, Central to Eveleigh, the Bays Precinct and the Fish Markets should provide at least 15 per cent social and affordable housing. This is what other parts of the world are doing, but New South Wales has a meagre target of 1 to 3 per cent of gross floor area. At Barangaroo South, such housing may not even be provided on site. The Government should allow councils to require developer contributions for affordable housing across their region without having to get State approval. Over 500 affordable homes were delivered from Ultimo‑Pyrmont and Green Square levies, and the Government should approve the City of Sydney's draft central planning strategy for a 1 per cent levy on new commercial developments and 3 per cent on residential CBD developments, which could yield 300 to 520 additional affordable homes.

The Government's ill-founded policy to sell homes in areas of high value to fund housing on the fringes of the city goes against world's best practice of providing homes close to jobs and transport and health and welfare services. The sale of homes in Millers Point has dismantled a tight‑knit community of public and private tenants, home owners and service providers who looked out for each other and provided support and care. Vulnerable tenants have been relocated to other areas where they do not have these supports and are alone. Not long ago Miller's Point supported over 500 vulnerable people in almost 400 social housing tenancies. The mass eviction of these homes has left hundreds of homes empty and awaiting sale, including the Sirius building which could be used to help all those sleeping rough in Martin Place. We need more wraparound housing like the Camperdown Common Ground project which also provides ongoing support to vulnerable people with complex needs so that they do not return to homelessness. There also needs to be continued and increased support for the assertive outreach programs that help people get off the street.

This week is National Homelessness Week and the Government's response is to remove vulnerable people who do not have a home from the area that they gravitate to where they can get food and clothing and where they feel safe in numbers. Tent city residents will not want to move away from the safety and services they are getting at Martin Place nor should they be forced to move until they can be guaranteed a safe and stable place to live. While the sight may be confronting, they are not doing any harm. They have not blocked public access. Many have complex problems like mental health concerns, trauma, substance addiction and financial hardship, which may have been exacerbated if they incur fines included in this bill. Fining people who have nothing does not make sense. The Government's message that people living in tents in public spaces are only troublemakers and that they could have homes is offensive given the social housing waiting list is more than 60,000 and the private rental market is more unaffordable than ever.

This bill has nothing to do with protecting residents of the city. City residents are my constituents and they have overwhelmingly expressed a desire for compassionate responses to the Martin Place tent city and homelessness. They want the Government to fix the problem through low cost, permanent and supportive housing. The Government should get on with what it can do to improve housing affordability and not harass those unfortunate enough not to have a home. It is important to acknowledge that homelessness will continue to affect people in Martin Place and around New South Wales because of poor government policies which, among other things, encourage pokies to be rife everywhere. When we create problems, we have a responsibility to also look after people. I condemn the bill.

See debate in Parliament HERE