Tag Archives: Homelessness Australia

Street Fighting Man

Published in Sydney’s Neighbourhood paper November 2017

https://neighbourhoodpaper.com/features/lanz-priestly-mayor-of-tent-city/

Lanz Priestly was ‘the Mayor of Tent City’, the leader of the Martin Place occupation by the homeless of Sydney. He’s ready for the next battle.

Lanz Priestly’s office has one of the best views in Sydney. Sydney Harbour occupies the foreground, to the left the Coathanger and a massive cruise ship; to the right, the colliding shells of the Opera House.

There are no walls, windows or wi-fi, but it does have natural air-conditioning. Poised above Circular Quay it also has a view of the Sirius Building, which Priestly eyes speculatively from his berth beside the humming Cahill Expressway.

“We’re not necessarily looking at buildings as the solution that we’re gonna put on the table,” Priestly says of his plans for Sydney’s homeless, after their Tent City in Martin Place was shut down by the state government in August Correct.

“There’s a couple of ferries being made redundant, we’re making overtures about those. There are other wasted commercial spaces; car parks, train stations they’re so keen to sell off. But here we are discussing options and we’re looking straight at the Sirius building over there. I could take you there right now and show you entire streets of empty houses that are owned by the state government. There’s all this social housing and no explanation as to why we can’t use it.”

Priestly, dubbed ‘the Mayor of Tent City’ by the Daily Telegraph, is homeless himself; since Tent City was moved he’s chosen the Quay as his chief residence.

He received a lot of negative press after coming to public attention as a self-appointed leader of the homeless. The Australian newspaper published a story revealing his colourful past including violent criminal charges, jail time and allegations raised about his previous employment claims.

If some of his stories can seem far-fetched, the fact remains that he’s become a viable and radically creative advocate for the homeless in an environment that previously held little hope for change. The standoff at Tent City forced the NSW government and Sydney City Council into public dialogue about homelessness that elevated the issue –and Priestly, sometimes known as Priestley – into front page headlines.

While the NSW Government claims a record investment of $1.1 billion to tackle homelessness in its 2017/18 budget, the demand for homelessness services has risen by 30 percent in the past three years. Rental stress is affecting over 75 percent of lower income households in NSW, as NGOs scramble to cope. The terrible truth is many families, and older women with unsecure incomes are only one economic crack away from falling into life on the streets. Mostly people just try to get on with life and hope it won’t ever happen.

Priestly scoffs at the business models of major homelessness charities, part of what he scornfully calls ‘the poverty industry’. “The organisations involved are too endemically attached to the problem,” he says. “Their vested interest is to grow their businesses.”

He cites CEO sleep-outs designed to convince the heads of large corporates to donate more. “They’re supposed to be pretty hard-nosed businessmen but every year they’re told ‘the problem’s getting worse, so we need more funding’ and every year they buy it. Imagine if they ran their businesses like that.

“We need to hit the existing methodologies on the head,” Priestly says. “We need to say, ‘If the problem’s getting bigger, if we’re not looking for a zero problem solution then your solutions aren’t working.’”

‘The Office’, as Priestly calls the Circular Quay bench he sleeps on, has a power connection so he can charge his phone; the instrument with which he coordinates a not-for-profit 24/7 homelessness survival operation of (quote?) some influence and reach..

Back in March 2017 I spent my first day with him (at Tent City) (in the CBD – this prior to Tent City) and was astounded by the variety and breadth of his networks, the respect he was accorded by social workers, nuns and police. Today, months later, in the aftermath of the Martin Place occupation, he’s planning further autonomous solutions to a problem that no amount of money, NGOs or government bodies seem able to deal with. His methodologies are challenging perceptions about the nature of homelessness, the way problem is being handled and even the homeless themselves.

“On the Thursday night before we shut Tent City down there were 35 people that got up in the morning and went to work,” he says. “Over three days I counted 58% of the people living there worked full time.”

By contrast, the City of Sydney’s (most recent) registry survey for 2015 found that of 516 homeless people surveyed only nine per cent were employed.

But Priestly, a former construction project manager who still does maintenance work and organises teams of rough-sleeping furniture removalists, says the first misconception about the homeless is that they’re shiftless and lazy – the second being that they’re lost and lonely causes.

“In eight months we had over 800 people through Tent City. We had a churn rate of as high as 20 percent a week, so it wasn’t like people were settling in. A lot of them were people we’d never seen before. And they tend to be the people you get off the streets really quickly.

“They knew exactly where the cracks were that they fell through and guess what? They fixed it up themselves. They didn’t need any input from us. There was food, shelter, somewhere they could leave their things in safety. They had all those things in one place, which frees them up to go and get themselves out of the shit.  A lot of those people are coming back to help too.

“The reality is without Tent City or a replacement people simply don’t have anywhere to get these resources and help themselves.”

Priestly maintains that a sense of community was integral to the formation of Tent City and the ongoing activities he oversees. “There’s no committee, but people have shared concerns. I can’t possibly do all the stuff myself. If I put it out there; this is what needs to be done, people put their hands up.

“Even today, I’m sitting here talking but there’s furniture being moved to homes we’ve found (for homeless people). Two of the guys are couriers, one has a delivery business, they ring me and say where they are and ask what we have that needs picking up that can go to their next destination.

“By the time today’s over, since we shut Tent City down, we’ll have furnished 97 houses, as far north as Woy Woy, out Maroubra way, Campbelltown… On Sunday I did one in St Marys, another one in Revesby today, so it’s all over the place.”

In the wake of Tent City Priestly claims his community has housed 212 people while the Department of Housing found accommodations for about 136, but failed to create the sense of community that sustains viable living arrangements.

Organising community barbeques is one of the communal activities Priestly has instigated to help stabilize rehoused individuals and families. “The BBQs are just one part of it,” he says. “In some of the estates where there are a reasonable number of children we’re looking at breakfast programmes in conjunction with homework assistance for kids that have problems with school work. That’s not hard to put together.”

He cites the example of his own daughter, who he says lived for seven years on the streets alongside him while attending an elite private school. She now has, he says, her own family and manages a medical centre from home in the eastern suburbs.

Priestly is concerned that despite such success stories, any work he does is a temporary fix. “What we’re doing is dealing with (homelessness) after the fact. In order to stop it, we actually have to reach behind and turn off the tap. What we need to be looking at is taking housing out of the commodities basket.

“People would be shocked to hear me quoting Menzies but in his time as (Liberal) Prime Minister he took housing home ownership from 25 percent for people over 20 to 75 percent when he retired as PM and he did that all through social housing. Social housing, in his mode,l encouraged people to buy and Singapore liked his model so much that they copied it and their model today is one of the best in the world.

“Today I wonder just how different people who are renting are from people who are homeless.

“Most people who are renting don’t know whether they’re gonna be able to stay there for more than six months, whether they’ll have to move house at the whim of their landlord. Last time I did the math I worked out it cost about $4,000 every time you moved.”

“The power of the free market puts people in a position where they have to work two full time jobs just to keep themselves housed – that keeps people far too busy to engage in community, too busy to engage in their family. But if we want to fix the things that society finds problematic then we need to do it as a community.

“We need to get over the idea that getting government to do anything will ever work.”

Priestly’s ideas may be contentious; he’s accused by News.com of inciting ‘class war’ and his latest passion is the Disrupt 2017 movement, which aims to create “media stunts and antics across Australia to expose the corporate profiteers abusing human and animal rights, creating war and destruction across the planet”.

But the facts are on his side. Funnily enough, so is Jenny Smith, CEO of the peak NGO body, Homelessness Australia – at least to an extent. Smith says that amidst wage stagnation and the massive inflation of capital city rents, many low-income earners are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, while one in every 85 Australians are now homeless.

“At the Federal level we’re not seeing the leadership that we need,” she told the Neighbourhood. “While the government is talking about the problem absolutely nothing is being done. There is still no plan and we still haven’t had any additional investment in housing or homelessness from the Federal government.”

A Family and Community Services (FACS) spokesperson told the Neighbourhood that claims that the NSW Government is not invested in reducing homelessness are inaccurate and unfair. In fact, the spokesperson emphasised the agency’s role in attempting to mitigate the problem, which was attributed to “domestic violence, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse”.

But an increase of 35 percent in homelessness services clients over the past four years in NSW does seem to underscore Smith and Priestly’s observations that external economic factors could well be the root cause, rather than the symptoms which FACS attributes it to.

Smith says that only fundamental policy change can shift this intractable issue. “It’s very clear the federal government needs to change its taxation settings in relation to capital gains tax and negative gearing. We treat investors better than we treat people on low incomes.”

She chuckles at the suggestion that autonomous movements can provide a solution. “Things like Tent City are protests and I don’t think anybody is proposing them as a viable alternative, but they bring to the public’s attention the inexorable fact that more and more people every day are finding themselves without a home. Just in the last year nationally 23,000 more came to our services looking for help. We’re turning away hundreds of people every day.”

Priestly, however, maintains NGOs are part of the problem.

“There’s a place called The Station (a government-funded drop-in centre) that barred me because of Tent City. The CEO said we were trying to undermine their business, but they shut at three in the afternoon and we were trying to provide all the services they don’t.”

Priestly is equally scathing about groups such as Bill Crews’ Exodus Foundation. “He originally set up in Ashfield as the destination to … suck up all the homeless out of the city. Didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now.

“We need something that’s a maximum of a ten-minute walk from the city circle railway stations. That transport link [is] absolutely vital. People who become destabilized and without a roof over their heads, a lot of those people have jobs that could be anywhere. The travel time added for most people to get to work is eliminated if we put it in the city.”

In the meantime, Priestly says there has been “zero meaningful engagement” from Council or government over the fate of the evictees from Tent City. “The level of engagement that we’ve seen is just them trying to ascertain what we’re up to,” he says.

Priestly claims he spoke to Clover Moore in person just prior to the forced eviction of Tent City. “She made a commitment to find (a permanent site for a homelessness community). No particular building or even a particular location was discussed,” he says of that meeting. “The opportunity to reach that point in those discussions was to a certain extent preempted by Berejiklian bringing in those laws with the speed she brought them in.

“Clover Moore then announced that the council would spend $100,000 and the state government also put up $100,000. In the wider scheme of things, $200,000 that’s catering to 100 people – how does that work? Where was she gonna put it? In a matchbox?”

That promise is yet to be fulfilled, while the homeless camp at Wentworth Park in Glebe is reportedly in imminent danger of being cleared out. Priestly says that this kind of uncertainty and prevarication is having an immediate impact on rough sleepers.

“There was an almost immediate increase in the number of homeless guys that have been bashed and robbed, including a guy who was hospitalized and nearly killed.

“One of the things I’m seeing is people really run down, just by virtue of having to carry their gear everywhere with them. It’s one of the important unseen things. I‘ve been on at [Sydney] Council for fifteen years to establish decent lockers, so that the guys can leave their gear there and go about doing things that enable them to get off the street. Doesn’t exist.”

In the absence of government action, Priestly says he has no option but to carry on with autonomous solutions. “Through social enterprise we’re now starting to see disruptive models emerging,” he says. “People in that space understand the concept of vanishing point models and that we should be setting up structures that have a vanishing point aim.”

He has specific ideas about what form this will take.

“There are people from some religious organisations I’m quite happy to work with. When we open our new centre there will be groups that helped out at Martin Place that will be part of that.

“The area we’re looking at is parts of Surry Hills that fit the picture. The building configurations there are more what we need. Not that we can’t fit into a skyscraper if we have to. We need outdoor space but it’s not hard to find a few metres of outdoor space in a high rise.”

In the meantime he’s getting on with a rigorous daily schedule.

“At the moment it’s very mundane. It’s about maintaining the guys that are on the street, it’s about getting furniture into houses. We’ve got nine vehicles running around today picking up furniture, taking it from those that don’t want it to people that do.”

Priestly consults his phone, a clear message that it’s time to wind up.

“Well, in two hours nothing’s gone wrong,” he says. “It’s usually people can’t find places, or washing machines can’t fit in buildings… there’s always something.

“At this stage we’re low key. We’re getting a footprint out there and everything we do is crowd sourced, y’know? So there’s an element of the community that is aware of what we’re doing and are supporting it. Let’s see what happens from there.”

“My end game is to go fishing,” he says, “problem solved. And I don’t have to do this anymore.”

Homeless Truths – published in The Saturday Paper 9/9/2017

https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2017/09/09/policies-failing-the-homeless/15048792005184

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.”