Rough sleepers claim rough treatment
GLEBE: For more than a year, a community of homeless people has been living in tents under the tramline at Wentworth Park. The community has been there for more than a year. Despite Council policy which refers to working with the homeless in a respectful and compassionate way (via a dedicated homelessness unit and a number of services and outreach programs), the rough sleepers have accused the City of Sydney of insensitive action.
There has been a groundswell of public support to stop the Council from removing the tents. “The people here are living in fear,” said Aunty Janet Bowman. “We are here because we’re homeless and just want to be treated as humans, not like animals. A tent gives us some dignity, a place to have some privacy, some protection from the elements.”
“We visited the homeless people at Wentworth Park in early February,” said Felix, a young person who regularly comes down from Blackheath to support homeless people around the inner city. He was shocked to hear that the tents were under threat of being taken away. He decided to come down to Wentworth Park to obtain firsthand knowledge and let others know about the “shameful way these homeless people are being treated”.
“These people at Wentworth Park are lovely people. We saw elderly people, sick people, people with mental health issues. They don’t want to be living in a tent but they don’t have a choice. The Council wants to put them back on the pavement. Why should a council as wealthy as Sydney be so callous as to take away something so important to these people?” Felix said.
On Wednesday February 11, Council workers arrived with police, and according to witnesses, accused members of the community of theft and illegal substance possession. Police then searched through belongings and impounded various items. Several people expressed anxiety about the process. “Because of the housing shortage, we’ve had to house ourselves,” one person affected by the police action said. “They’re expecting us to live like dogs but forgot to bring us a bowl!”
“To take away from people who have so little is a shameful thing to do,” said Aboriginal performer Radical Son. “I tried to attend a gathering of people organised by the City of Sydney with some friends to express our concerns and we were denied entry and treated disrespectfully. If they treat us like that, how are they treating vulnerable homeless people?”
A City of Sydney spokesperson has responded to questions from the SSH. “Rough sleepers in Wentworth Park were asked to cooperate in keeping the park safe and tidy for the public,” the spokesperson said. “Two fires and several hazards, such as cooking in tents, rat infestations and a build-up of furniture, have been reported in the past six months.
“The City of Sydney works hard to ensure that public space can be accessed and enjoyed safely by everyone, including people experiencing homelessness. The City encourages responsible behaviour by all people in our public spaces while ensuring that disadvantaged people are not discriminated against and are treated with compassion and respect.
“Following complaints last year about deliberately lit fires and unauthorised camping at Wentworth Park, the City issued warnings to a group of rough sleepers about keeping the area tidy. The City worked with the rough sleepers to clean up the area and remove some of the items.
“Recently, more items have built up in the area, including over 20 tents, deck chairs, tables, a barbecue and a fridge.
“City staff, along with specialist homeless-service workers, met with the rough sleepers to negotiate a solution to the issue and the fire risk, with each person now limiting their belongings to bedding and two bags.
“The City is also working with the rough sleepers to connect them with the appropriate services and look at ways they can access accommodation.
“The City has committed $4.2 million over the next three years to help fund outreach services, support for young people, and Connect 100, which will provide housing for people experiencing homelessness in the inner city.”
The spokesperson affirmed that the City supports the NSW government’s Protocol for People in Public Places, which promotes the rights of people who are experiencing homelessness to access public spaces without the risk of discrimination.
Items gathered by City staff in Wentworth Park are being stored at a Council depot for collection.