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Dismantling Tent City

It all began as a series of daring accretions starting last December. Now, Tent City in Sydney’s Martin Place has become something of an institution, albeit of the fleeting sort. But this gathering of the homeless, rather than being considered a social consequence of galloping house prices and general cost of living, has been uneven in pulling heartstrings.

Benedict Brook, writing for news.com.au, commences by describing a site where “dining is alfresco, the security 24/7 and the view, of some of Sydney’s most historic buildings, is sublime.” This lends itself to an inadvertent act of nose-turning disgust, with those in tent city supposedly making inappropriate use of a prime slice of real estate which “won’t cost anything at all.”

To Brook’s credit, the rest of the piece rises from its initially unpromising dredges, sketching a few humane portraits. He takes note of Nigel Blackmore’s tent, located in the middle of this accumulating wonder. “I was the kind of person who would walk past, be annoyed, and ring the council and say ‘when will you move these bloody people on?’” Then came divorce, the loss of a job, and the need to find accommodation. How mighty the high do fall.

A community has gathered, generating its own rituals around economies of respect. The camp is clean, and various fire safety rules observed. Signs dot the camp about observing appropriate behavioural standards; alcohol is (supposedly) prohibited. Bringing cups for the gratis food and drink is also encouraged. Within this speck of an ecosystem, located with thumbing defiance in front of Australia’s Reserve Bank, comes a concerned, desperate counter that is not entirely based on choice.

Some who have left their spot on Martin Place find an option with walls, a cold residence as that of Sammy Migenta, who had been a Tent City resident for six weeks. “There’s nothing there. There’s no community. You don’t know anyone there. I don’t have anything to cook with.” A roof over a head is no guarantee of community, and Tent City, lacking fabricated structures and that solidity of permanence, has become homely, generating its own mores of comfort.

The slew of responses to its continued presence vary, depending on whether it is a matter for New South Wales, or the City of Sydney. The ultimate aim is to dismantle it. The City of Sydney council has been none too impressed by affordability problem of the city. The New South Wales government is even less sympathetic.

Pru Goward, the NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, feels that the government has been pulling its weight, with her department making dozens of visits to offer accommodation and services. “No-one needs to sleep in a tent, support is available.”

The central premise is one that parcels out the commons in a specific way. The residents of Tent City are deemed offensive, their very presence a violation of an aesthetic sensibility. In what must count as part of the socially absurd, the NSW government has also expressed “safety concerns” over the presence of such items as bookshelves and a piano. What might a comfort for a Tent City resident is a barbaric discomfort for the housed, moneyed passerby.

This logic was extended by Premier Gladys Berejiklian who introduced legislation that gives the authorities power to remove people or goods that constitute “unacceptable impacts on the public.” The grammatically tortured wording of the provision doesn’t detract from its ultimate meaning: the unbecoming, the ugly, unacceptable, will be removed, cast aside, buried. At this writing, the bill has passed, without amendments.

As the Premier explained on August 2, it all had to do with comfort – and distinctly not the comfort of those who had found a safe space in a very conspicuous part of Sydney, away from wretched doorways and shelters. She was full of “concern” that “there were some people there who are not there for the right reasons”.

The blame, according to the Berejiklian government, is easy: Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. For her part, Moore announced on Monday that an agreement had, in fact, been organised with the self-styled mayor of tent city, Lanz Priestly, based on relocating residents to a 24-hour safe space. The Premier also registered her approval.

When faced with the details, Priestly remained unclear, though Moore, through a City of Sydney Council meeting, has approved $100,000 towards the establishment of the safe space. The Australian, in the best traditions of the Murdoch press, was delighted to tell its readers that Priestly could not be trusted. He had a “criminal past”, as if that explained anything.

This scrap focuses on an age old argument on how the commons are used. The fact that the unsightly is being punished, that a legislative response penalising conduct rather than socially redressing poverty, continues a long tendency in the approach of power towards the inappropriate, and those deemed threats to the order.

In Melbourne, Sydney’s old sparring rival of a city, a war of sorts has been declared by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle against the ugly, the unseemly, the unclean. The rather naff notion came into being earlier this year: outlawing the very condition of homelessness itself.

This does something of a reversal on that old notion advanced by George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Major Barbara: “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.” But for Doyle and his ilk, such a condition can itself be criminalised.

Of 2,550 submissions on the proposed by-law, 84 per cent were keenly opposed. An alternative, advanced by an alliance of 54 groups, suggested the establishment of safe spaces for the homeless to gather, secure lockers for storage, and pre-emptive intervention programs.

The latest focus, however, is on Sydney, and how Tent City will disappear into the ether of an invisible consciousness. The promise of closure, with the euphemistic language of cleaning, is a daily occurrence. Residents are already packing, ready for the quick departure. A community born; a community removed.


Dr Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed on Twitter at @bkampmark.



  1. Max Gross

    Send in the army!!! Where’s our MacArthur to lay waste to all around and kill the poor! What blithely socio-pathic grotesques we have ruling over us!

  2. paul walter

    Instead of bullying the poor, what about they get to work sorting out the billion dollar water theft issue?

  3. helvityni

    Berejiklian and Goward, two lovely Liberals Ladies; we got to keep our city looking clean… Yes, but no but, what are you going to do about all the homeless folk, after all one of you is the Premier and the other is the Minister for , wait, for HOUSING…

    Poor homeless, tortured asylum seekers, the disappointed gay people…. Is there any light at the end of this very long right-wing tunnel…Cry.

  4. Matt

    Bloody hell – I bet the Aborigines find what we have to done to Melbourne and Sydney pretty unsightly! They should be clearing away all those unsustainable towers while we still have the resources to do it.

  5. Jack Straw

    I heard Sir Robert Doyle bragging to Alan Jones last week how he dispensed with these retched people.

  6. jimhaz

    I’d move them on myself. Martin Place is not the place – though it is a good temporary demonstration to the corporate public just how unaffordable housing now is in Sydney.

    For 100k the city must have currently unused land in more or less walking distance to the CBD (as they seem to need to feel part of society this way), where a sort of caravan park for this group could be created. People would donate caravans.

    Trouble is the more you support the homeless, the more livable you make it for them, the more there will end up being and the less they will be caused to help themselves. There is always a Catch 22.

  7. king1394

    The idea expressed by jimhaz, that if you help people, they will become more dependent is just a truism, based on nothing but prejudice. This country didn’t have this level of homelessness and poverty until we developed these ideas that people could be made to work by cutting benefits and that housing was a form of investment. The sick and disabled can probably be healed if we close hospitals as well.

  8. Ceridwen66

    “Trouble is the more you support the homeless, the more livable you make it for them, the more there will end up being and the less they will be caused to help themselves. There is always a Catch 22”.

    How does the proverbial Kool-Aid taste jimhaz? By your comment you’re obviously not choking on it but drinking huge gulps. Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst kind of violence and in reading your comment, I understand exactly what he meant. Not only do you characterize the homeless as a heavy burden, you utilise the same tired neo-con rhetoric in promoting poverty and homelessness as unavoidable, expected and the fault of the individual.

    Homelessness and poverty are not a lack of personal character, they are a lack of money and opportunity and the result of a cruel society turning its back on people and making them invisible.

  9. crypt0

    The Aboriginal people know what white Australia stands for after 200 plus years of experience.
    The refugees on Nauru and Manus Is. are also up to speed after a much shorter period.
    Now our own homeless people, and the number is growing as we speak, know all there is to know about “Australian values”.
    Domestic violence (which seems to be something of an epidemic in ‘straya), the increasing incidence of depression and other mental issues, and the world record prices of housing and house rental in this country is, and will, see increasing numbers of homelessness in the land of the fair go.
    Jimhaz, people sleep rough for one reason … it’s the best option available to them. Simple as that. You could always try talking to them and find out a bit about the situation, because right now, I think you know SFA.
    As for doyle goward and the rest of the LieNP, they are just so full of sh!t.

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