This is my, longer version.
Mayor of the Mean Streets
Mick Daley ©2017
Lanz Priestly, de facto Mayor of the mean streets of Sydney’s homeless, is a former building project manager. He organizes trucks and teams of tent dwellers to do house removal jobs, performs domestic violence interventions and maintains a roster of free kitchens across the CBD. He became the voice of the homeless in their stand off with the NSW Government in Martin Square in August.
He says Australia’s approach to the problem of homelessness is flawed.
“If we have a problem in project management we identify a point in time where we don’t have a problem and become redundant. We identify a methodology to get there and a diminishing cost structure along the way. But NGO’s and government … work the other way. Every year they say, ‘oh the problem is getting bigger, so we’ve gotta pour more money into it’. Doesn’t that mean that the methodology they’re using isn’t working? Throw it in the rubbish bin.”
Priestly is a hard man to keep up with. He constantly patrols the streets, keeping tabs on individuals and organisations.
“The fundamental problem is the government and NGOs do not look at it as a problem,” he says. “If you were the CEO of Mission Australia, would you seriously want to be the guy who put up his hand to say ‘I dried up the rivers of gold’?
“Their aim is to grow their business. Bureaucrats are incentivized to grow their departments so it grows their career path. There’s no zero problem end game.”
Priestly has been working on Sydney’s streets for thirty years. He knows them intimately. He knows the secret camping hideouts, the stashes, the coffee shops that will give a homeless person a free cuppa.
He took me on a tour through his Sydney. The streets dominated by traffic and office workers seem different from this perspective. Pushing a trolley loaded with sleeping bags, talking to workers at various shelters, drinking coffee with long term street sleepers, you start to see the homeless more and more. They’re everywhere.
NSW Homelessness peak bodies claim an increase of over 35% in homelessness from 2015 onwards. Priestly interprets those figures in rather more graphic terms.
“We’re seeing another 15 people a night that we’ve never seen before. Counting people that are sleeping in their cars with or without families, we’re seeing about another 25 a day.”
Priestly has worked these mean streets from both sides. He points out major buildings throughout the CBD that he has project managed to completion.
“I saw my role as the person that’s responsible for the delivery of quality to the end buyer. They’re depending on what I’m signing off on to tell them that they’ve bought a quality product. Well guess what, I haven’t seen a quality product go up in the last 22 years.”
“They have builder’s warranties that run out in seven years and there are a lot of materials that have an 8-12 year life. Part of the reason for that is it makes the property management more lucrative and therefore people will pay more for the property management rights, because they know in eight years time the tiles are going to go and then in nine years time it might be the seals on the windows and in ten years it might be the waterproofing on the garden beds and showers that go.”
Priestly sees that ‘free market’ approach to building as a perfect metaphor for the attitude of government to homelessness. It’s underscored by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to bypass an amicable solution and instead send in the police to evict the homeless in Martin Square.
It’s an observation shared by some senior NGO’s.
“Social inequality is expressed through the housing market,” observes Dr Heather Holst, of Melbourne’s Launch Housing service.
“Our rental tenancy acts are geared more to the rights of the owner who has an investment than, as it is in other countries, it is geared to the rights of the tenant. There’s a basic issue.”
Dr Holst points to socially conservative governments such as that of Menzies, the idol of the Right, who ensured that by 1966, 75% of Australians owned their own home.
“So there have been settlements in Australia which meant that there was no effective homelessness. But when you just let the market rip on housing then inevitably you get more homelessness.”
Karyn Walsh, CEO of Brisbane’s Micah Projects have adopted the Housing First approach.
First trialled in Los Angeles in 1988, this aims to provide permanent housing and support services for the homeless.
It’s been particularly successful in Canada, where Alberta Human Services deliver for less than $35,000 per person per year, as opposed to the $100,000 required annually to keep a chronically homeless person alive on the streets.
“There’s recognition that there is cost benefit in the justice system, to the health system. We get kids in school and the parents work-ready,” says Walsh. “That’s recognized all over the world.”
Except Australia. Malcolm Turnbull’s outwardly rational appeals to Australia to place its trust in his economic management skills are based on the notion that they will trickle down to the poor and downtrodden, elevating them to work-ready status, presumably able to pay hyper-inflated rents.
His Coalition government is wrangling heavier penalties for unemployed people who fail to adhere to demands from private employment agencies – notwithstanding the $41 million found to have been rorted by fraudulent claims from such agencies in 2016. NSW University of Technology studies show one in four people on benefits have been forced to beg on the streets, as housing has become a major stress on the unemployed.
The Coalition under Tony Abbott axed all funding to peak advocacy body Homelessness Australia. Jenny Smith is the CEO of both Homelessness Australia and the Victorian peak body CHP (Council to Homeless Persons).
“There’s no doubt that investment in social housing hasn’t grown since Kevin Rudd’s injection into nation building around the global financial crisis,” she observes.
“That was 2008-9 onwards. Done. We don’t actually have a template about how to do what is required across the public/private philanthropic investment space at all. There’s not even a back of the envelope plan.”
“It is very sobering that we’re currently facing a federal term of government without those policies in place. Our sector has got $115 million that is still uncertain, from the end of (last) financial year.
“And that’s just making the wheels go round to keep supporting people.”
Lanz Priestly has seen the wheels come off. He worked through the Occupy movement in 2011, where his teams were feeding up to 450 people a night. The O’Farrell government was then ordering police to arrest homeless people.
“If a homeless guy was asleep on the street, provided he didn’t have a blanket they’d leave him there, but if he used a blanket or tried to do anything to take shelter they’d take it off him. You’re allowed to sleep in the streets as long as you don’t use a blanket. What sort of logic drives that?”
Priestly’s solution is to trust in individuals or small independent groups.
“We’ve got 38 outfits which service Martin Place independently. If we set up a single delivery structure something can take that outfit out and that’s that whole service gone.
“Whereas if any of those outfits go down the others can continue to operate. Some are church groups, some are family groups. There are Muslim groups, Hindus.”
Priestly sees these grassroots movements as far more effective means of welfare distribution.
“What’s in the best interests of the NGO isn’t always what’s in the best interests of the target constituency,” he maintains.
“When I look at the NGOs, I can’t say the CEO isn’t doing their job, but it might be a different thing to what the public assumes. They allow for broadsheet accounting where they can say ‘oh we spent that on the homeless’, but when you unpack it the money was spent on a brochure promoting a fundraiser.
“I’ve got firsthand examples of how 15 million dollar contracts end up with $1.5 million hitting the streets.
“Ultimately the most marginalized people in this conversation are the donors and the taxpayers. They don’t look under the hood to see what’s happening and they don’t stop to think that the problem’s actually getting bigger.”