Small communities of tent dwellers are popping up -and being moved along – on Sydney’s city fringe. One of Australia’s leading experts says they are victims of the housing crisis. A year or two ago a friend and neighbor told me of a spot in Pyrmont where he thought some homeless people had set up a semi-permanent camp. Recently, after stumbling on another small community of tent dwellers, I went looking where he had described. Sure enough, there were two tents and an assortment of household and personal items. No one answered, but it is possible they were there, hiding in the tents rather than drawing attention to themselves.
At the time I was on my way somewhere, and didn’t want to jump the fence to get closer, but I came back a week or so later, only to find the fence had been folded back to allow vehicles to enter and park. They were using the lot as parking for construction workers and tradies working on a set of apartment blocks going up a short way down the road. I found the tent collapsed, the mattress left exposed to the weather.
A week or two later, on another patch of unused land in the inner-city, I came across this tent dweller.
When I checked, I found the other group, the first one I had first come across, had been moved on completely by construction work. One wonders where they went.
What‘s going on?
Homelessness is nothing new in the area, the low overpass at the end of the street offers great shelter. It was previously home to a remarkably crazy, dirty and ragged old homeless man, and is currently the residence of a quietly schizophrenic woman of late middle age, who sorts through the garbage and brings back her pickings in trolley loads to hoard next to her.
These three camp-sites are, however, something different. As were the people from them, or at least those that I met. They had personal effects, some including heaters and fans with them still, despite not having power. They had found ways to remain hygienic and presentable. I talked with them about music and films. They were in short, fairly normal. Most were on payments and some even had patches of work, but legitimate accommodation was out of their reach.
I was reminded of an article I had written in 2007 for the City News, on the stress on Sydney’s rental market. In it I included a quote by Professor Terry Burke of The Swinburne University of Technology’s Institute for Social Research, that “as the Australian labour market increasingly polarizes into winners and losers, so will the rental market”.
For the same article I had spoken to Reverend Keith Garner of the Wesley Mission, who had told me of a “new kind” of homelessness. In the past they had dealt mainly with middle aged and older people, predominantly men, who had mental health and other issues and who had lost contact with all support networks. Recently they had been having families arriving in their cars after failing to make rent or payments on a mortgage.
I wondered if these tents were an example of this trend continuing, despite a full term of the supposedly progressive Tanya Plibersek, in whose electorate this is all occurring, being minister for housing.
I contacted professor Burke, who suggested that, as homelessness in particular was the issue in this case, I should speak with his colleague, Associate Professor David Mackenzie, a leading researcher in that field.
When I raised the topic with him he seemed interested, but not surprised. It sounded typical, he said, of a “new group in the homeless population”, that didn’t fit the usual stereotype. These people, he said were a growing group who “don’t have a massive number of other problems” and who would probably be able to house themselves “if it wasn’t for the difficulties of the housing crisis”.
He said that long term changes such as growing social atomisation, immigration and growing inequality had combined with “underinvestment in infrastructure for ten years” under Howard, to create the problem. While he says Ms Plibersek was “one of the best ministers we’ve ever had” (she has been replaced following the last election by Mark Arbib) he also says “the way that government is going about it is very flawed” and that while the statistics are not available yet, that the problem was probably worse now than when Labor first took office.
While he praised the goals laid out in the governments white paper on the issue, such as halving homelessness by 2020, he said the government, now into their second term, simply “don’t have the mechanisms in place” to achieve it. The government, he said, had not developed a national plan and was instead acting on a state by state “ad hoc” and unsatisfactory basis. In particular, he said there had been a lack of investment in early intervention in the last two years, pointing, in the language of the white paper, that the problem wont get any better “if you don’t turn of the tap”.
I am a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of corporate and community outlets from my hometown of Sydney and from the Middle East, including from Lebanon during Israels 2006 invasion and from Iran during the tumultuous presidential elections there in 2009. You can find more of my blog posts at: austingmackell.wordpress.com