Homeless in Sydney: Who’s public space is it and whose rights will prevail?
Stacey Miers & Dr Somwrita Sarkar, University of Sydney | 27 July 2017
In response to pressure from property development as reported by Sydney Morning Herald in late June the City of Sydney recently undertook a mass removal of homeless people and their belongings from beneath building scaffolding in Martin Place.
This action is one component of a growing struggle between land development interest and the role of the City of Sydney in dealing with a growing homelessness issue. A similar tussle has been slowly playing out in Woolloomooloo, located 2km from Martin Place between residential landowners and the homeless [and in Melbourne – ed].
Woolloomooloo a Moving Landscape – Towards Gentrification
Woolloomooloo the name carried with it the recognition of it transitional connection to Aboriginal tribal lands. Sydney historian Shirley Fitzgerald (2008) points out that Woolloomooloo was an important gathering place for local Aboriginal tribes and that they continued to gather in Woolloomooloo on a nightly basis up into the early 1920s.
Ironically, as the City of Sydney struggles with its uncomfortableness over its highly visible homeless population, Australia’s first nations people could say that these same issues have been playing out at a local community level ever since colonisation.
Over 200 years Woolloomooloo transitioned from Aboriginal tribal lands to farming land, to water-based industries and naval facilities. Workers cottages grew up in the surrounding residential streets occupied by lower paid workers employed in nearby industries.
The status quo remained until the 1970s when industries started to move out, and Woolloomooloo became the focus of major high-rise urban residential redevelopment proposals, major freeways and rail projects.
Urban renewal plans also bred alternative movements such as heritage preservation campaigns, and the Green Bans movement.
The anti-redevelopment campaigns resulted in a deal called the Woolloomooloo Tripartite Agreement in the 1980s, which saw significant federal government funds allocated towards the restoration of neglected housing stock to provide public and naval housing, along with pocket parks and landscaped areas and community infrastructure (3). These campaigns also ensured that the existing low-rise heritage street character of Woolloomooloo remained, along with a mixed-income community of private and public housing stock, made up of renters and homeowners.
The Homeless Woolloomooloo
Woolloomooloo always had a population of rough sleepers. St Vincent De Paul’s Mathew Talbot Hostel was established in Woolloomooloo in 1965 to address the needs of homeless. Historically these services were targeted at men affected by alcoholism with connections to waterfront industries and shipping.
During the1990s the demographic makeup of rough sleepers in the suburb shifted away from the traditional Mathew Talbot client base. This change was acknowledged in an interview with Carol Ann King (March 2016) who works with the rough sleeper population.
In March 2016 the homeless count for Woolloomooloo revealed 40 people sleeping rough. The largest percentage was indigenous Australian, around 40 per cent. Around 5 per cent identified as gay or transgender, who may also be Aboriginal. Close to 20 per cent were ex-service personnel (men, who served in Afghanistan) and around 20 per cent were women.
The problem of ex-service personnel becoming homeless was similarly highlighted in 2009, in a study by David Dunt for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
His work identified increasing levels of homelessness among comparatively young returned veterans. In the past, the primary safety net for many service personnel in this situation would have been the public housing system.
However, declining investment in this sector and long waiting lists make it hard for anyone to access. For people who are unwell, couples with issues of self-pride and shame, accessing this system can be even more challenging.
Geasley from Sydney City Councils Homeless Service (2016) also points out that many of Sydney’s current homeless population are affected by mental health drug dependency and poverty, making it difficult for them to access and maintain permanent accommodation options.
The majority of the rough sleepers in Woolloomooloo have tended to congregate in public spaces and small pocket parks. However, increasingly, they are being pushed from these public parks into the areas under the responsibility of the NSW Government Housing Authority, as these public spaces are the path of least resistance.
Council and local landowners have developed ways to discourage rough sleepers from using public parks and spaces through the following initiatives:
- Council undertaking daily cleansing activities in the public space and parks were rough sleepers congregate, including disposing of any personal items that have not already been removed and hosing down the areas
- Council fencing off park space to stop rough sleepers from accessing sections of the park
- Council removing benches to stop rough sleepers from sitting or sleeping
- A local group of property owners have formed a group called “Making Woolloomooloo Better”; its principle task appears to be planting out areas to limit access for the homeless
The following images highlight many of the initiatives and provide a before and after view of council’s morning cleaning regiment at Tom Uren Square in Woolloomooloo. The planting enterprises in Tom Uren Square by “Making Woolloomooloo Better” and the closing off of small pocket parks to the homeless.
The following image shows the same space after the group called “Making Woolloomooloo Better” planted out the areas in Tom Uren Square to the discourage the rough sleepers.
The subsequent image is of Bourke Street Park, located across from Tom Uren Square but outside the Housing NSW public housing area. Homeless people use to frequent this park. However, parts of the park has been fenced-off to discourage the homeless, and only the adjoin homeowners have key access to the fenced off area.
The image also shows a development application by the council to extend the existing fenced area, based on expanding the community garden. The surrounding landowners who are active in “Making Woolloomooloo Better” have also lobbied for this proposal.
Additional pressure on Sydney homeless population from home owners seeking to maximise profit
One of the issues driving the displacement of lower income renters and the homeless from an inner urban area such as Woolloomooloo is the increasing pressure from property owners who want to protect and improve the value of their assets.
There are some properties located near Tom Uren Square and the Bourke Street Park being rented on Airbnb. These property owners are also involved in groups, such as “Making Woolloomooloo Better” and would benefit if the rough sleeper population disappeared.
The figure below shows the high density of Airbnb listings in Woolloomooloo (from the company’s website), the red dots indicate that an entire house is up for let and the green dots show the availability of a private room in a unit or house.
Due to the historical campaigns much of Woolloomooloo historical urban charter remains, made up of small terrace house that now carry very high land value. As indicated in the graph below the percentage of houses being let on Airbnb in Woolloomooloo is high.
Given that it is unlikely that property owners looking to subsidise their mortgage or maximise income from their residential properties through ventures such as Airbnb will decrease, this will see increasing pressure placed on Sydney City Council to address or remove the homeless problem.
Whose land rights are being serviced?
The growing divide over the use of public spaces by rough sleepers, high land values and the need for higher returns in cities like Sydney are being played out publically in Sydney’ Martin Place and Woolloomooloo.
Clearly, there are significant challenges that exist around the notion of home owners or occupiers and the homeless and whose rights are being serviced.
The lines and ethical grounds that define who and how public spaces can be accessed remains a complex social challenge for place makers, city planners, administrators and policy makers.
In light of these issues, it would be fair to conclude that when planning for the present day and future needs of our urban citizens we must include a safety net for people who may become homeless and create policy responses that deliver sustainable accommodation options.
Stacey Miers works part time as a researcher at Sydney University, Somwrita Sarkar is a senior lecturer, School of Architecture, Design, and Planning, University of Sydney.