Tents in the city
The controversy over Martin Place’s homeless community became a political power struggle
By Michael Dulaney
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It is Friday afternoon, and a scrum of 20 camera operators and journalists are fighting for position to interview the NSW minister for social housing, Pru Goward, who is in Sydney’s Martin Place for a press conference and photo-op with her staff. Goward had earlier traded barbs with Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, over who was responsible for removing the tents that many homeless people had set up in the centre of the city. Interest in the story was high.
Bands of journalists are stalking the area and picking off residents for interviews in front of passing office workers and onlookers. Meanwhile, a dozen NSW Department of Family and Community Services staff members in red beanies are roaming between the tents and signing up people for housing, giving the impression of blood cells drawn to a wound. When one of them joins a client at the entrance of her tent, the media pack descends, crowding in with cameras and microphones as she tries to unzip the door. The public servants, notoriously media-averse, whisper to one another and nervously look around before gently guiding their client away from the scene. Then, apropos of almost nothing, Senator Sam Dastyari appears, gives a brief head nod to three bemused journos and starts filming a social media video before promptly leaving. Back near the Housing NSW tables, Goward is confronted by the so-called Mayor of Martin Place, Lanz Priestley, for an impromptu public debate. Five or six camera operators, sensing a fight, rush back from the tents to join the rest of the pack.
Troy, 18, the youngest in the camp, stands in the middle of the square with his arms crossed, watching from a safe distance.
“A circle of cameras here, just on her,” he says. “And only just because she’s, like, the governor? What are the people of Australia gonna say when they see these people back on the streets in a week’s time?”
The people of Australia had plenty to see and say during the week or so that the tent city spent in the national spotlight early last month. Sixty homeless people sleeping in 40 tents pitched in the shadow of the Reserve Bank of Australia building, near the construction site for the 33-storey, $300 million flagship development for two of Sydney’s biggest property developers, and just a few blocks from Parliament House, was always going to draw attention.
The group had actually been in Martin Place since December, when they occupied just a small kitchen and some mattresses beneath the walkway of the construction site. This iteration lasted until June, when they were evicted by the City of Sydney with a letter declaring them a “public nuisance” and council staff loaded their gear into trucks parked beneath a banner advertising the upcoming CEO Sleepout. Days later, a new hoarding was installed to close off the area, complete with an artist’s depiction of the future skyscraper.
In many ways, the eviction was a blessing for the tent city residents: the new hoarding, painted in black, gave them a large chalkboard to work with and, more importantly, pushed them into a position of prominence in the square.
Priestley, 72, is an activist with considerable experience, opposing fracking and apartheid, organising squats in London and Brazil, and participating in Occupy Sydney. He understands the symbolism of Martin Place, and constantly refers back to the bigger picture of homelessness, of which there is plenty to discuss. To cite a few statistics: Homelessness NSW says the tent city community comprises just 0.2% of the 28,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state. At least 400 people now sleep rough in the City of Sydney area, and many of these people, along with 60,000 others, are on the ten-year waiting list for public housing. Meanwhile, crisis accommodation is at 90% capacity and affordable private rentals for people on low incomes are effectively zero. Whenever someone leaves the camp, they are immediately replaced – Priestley says at least 800 people passed through the tents within six months.
Priestley is clearly the tent city’s chief decision-maker. He tells me that the camp is entirely crowdfunded and backed by a mysterious support group of lawyers, donors and volunteers, as well as someone handling media alerts out of Monkey Mia in remote Western Australia. Priestley is affable, engaging, and able to deliver long, expletive-filled monologues about the cause and his role in it, as well as the “poverty industry” and the “zero-problem solution” to homelessness.
“This actually needs to be dealt with nationally,” he says during a typical stump speech.
As the face of the tent city, Priestley has seen his past become public record. It’s reported that he is a father of 12 children (“from ages 47 to zero”, he tells me), with the youngest born to his 20-year-old partner, Nina Wilson, who at one stage was also sleeping at the camp. The Daily Telegraph prints his photo on the front page with the headline ‘Welcome to our night mayor’. The Australian details his “long criminal history” in Australia and New Zealand, as well as his supposed links to an “anti-medicine cult”. Official records obtained by the paper reveal that Priestley – real name Rutene Lanceforde Priestly – is only 59 years old. He denies this is true.
Beneath Priestley is a leadership group, of sorts: Nigel, who is ostensibly the second-in-command; Rewi, who occasionally fronts the media; and a few others. There are the camp chefs, Danny and Rosie, and a long-haired security guard with titanium knees and black belts in several martial arts who is described by Blake, the independent filmmaker documenting the tent city, as “basically like a homeless Jean-Claude Van Damme”. And then there are the residents, who all have stories to share about the realities of homelessness. Some only come out of their tents at night, once the daily traffic has subsided, while others are more active in communal life and seem to make at least tentative gains from the place.
Troy, for example, is a smart and overconfident kid with a previous ice addiction, no formal education and six months spent on the street. He also has a baby on the way, and appears to be learning to carry that weight – doing odd jobs around the camp, speaking up during group meetings, and helping people set up tents or get established when they first arrive. Like many in the tent city, he is sceptical about applying for temporary accommodation, knowing from bitter experience that it can be an intensive process that often leads nowhere.
“This place has got more people off the street than [the council] and the [state] government combined,” Troy says. “The sooner people understand that, the better.”
In one sense, this speaks to the tent city’s effectiveness as a political movement. Despite having a ten-year waiting list, the NSW Department of Family and Community Services says it permanently housed 88 people from the tent city and visited Martin Place 49 times since March 2017. For comparison, it visited the rest of the Sydney district 70 times during the same period. But another view, spread by Premier Gladys Berejiklian and repeated in sections of the media, is that the camp is merely a distraction from the “genuine homeless”. One can either be a rough sleeper or a protester, apparently, but not both. “We do feel for the genuinely homeless, but if they’re just trying to get on TV, then, we don’t,” Channel Seven presenter Sam Armytage said while concluding a panel discussion about the camp on Sunrise.
The tent city’s week in the spotlight prompted a power struggle between the City of Sydney led by Clover Moore (who used the camp as a bargaining chip during negotiations with the state government) and Premier Berejiklian (who set the tone early when she said the homeless made her “completely uncomfortable”).
After several days of bickering between the two levels of government, Moore announced outside Town Hall that she had struck a deal with Priestley: the camp would move voluntarily into a temporary “safe space” while the City of Sydney looked for a permanent solution. It appeared, for a brief moment, that the situation might have an amicable end. What the media wasn’t told was that this deal had only been finalised a few minutes prior to the press conference, which was why Moore seemed hazy on some of the details and Priestley unexpectedly appeared at the bottom of the steps. Caught off-guard and surrounded by a media pack, he contradicted Moore by insisting the safe space included sleeping facilities, and that he “would spend months, if necessary” pushing for a better outcome. It was a profound miscalculation. Priestley’s statement added to the sense of chaos, effectively torpedoing the narrative of compromise with the City of Sydney, and providing an opportunity for the Berejiklian government to forcefully intervene. Within 48 hours, the state government had rushed new laws through parliament, giving it the power to evict the tent city residents from Martin Place.
Shortly after meeting with the City of Sydney, Priestley returned to the camp to explain, for the first time, the details of the agreement to the residents. Although he insisted the tents would stay, the news bulletins told a different story. The mood among the tent city residents quickly frayed. People paced around the camp, confused and agitated.
“Why doesn’t someone tell us the fucking truth?” demanded Peter, who had only just returned from one night in temporary accommodation.
After a short group meeting, word spread that Moore would be coming down to sign the agreement in person. Two of her staffers arrived at 9 pm with the document, accompanied by TV crews. What the cameras didn’t capture, because they were pointing the other way, was 200 food-stressed people, including most of the tent city residents, lining up beside the food vans serving that night’s meal in the square below. While the residents were preoccupied, a farce of “community consultation” was taking place above them.
Priestley read out the document for the benefit of the cameras.
“Is that OK with everyone here?” he asked, waving the page around in the air.
After an interminable silence, two of the handful of tent city residents present yelled “yeah”, and Priestley snapped to attention. “OK, I’m signing it!”
A few days later the tents finally came down amid another media frenzy, with Priestley fronting the cameras for one final verbal blast.
“[The NSW government] decided the option they should use was to implement, with haste, some of the most draconian laws this state has ever seen.”
With the kitchen being dismantled around him, Troy announced that he had found a permanent place, an apartment with enough room for his wife and baby.
Troy held up the keys for everyone to see and said he had already had his first night indoors.
“It’s weird being in four walls, bro, having a door and a place where you sleep.”
Many other residents were not so lucky, instead returning to the disconcerting cycle of moving between couches, the street and an occasional night in government-funded temporary accommodation.