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.
“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 per cent in the past three years. Rental stress is affecting over 75 per cent 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 some 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 some influence and reach.
Back in March 2017 I spent my first day with him in the CBD 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 the problem is being handled and even the homeless themselves.
“On the Thursday 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 percent 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 per cent 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 barbecues is one of the communal activities Priestly has instigated to help stabilise 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 home ownership from 25 per cent for people over 20 to 75 per cent when he retired as PM and he did that all through social housing. Social housing, in his model, 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 the NSW government of waging ‘class war’ on the homeless and vowed to defend against it. 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 per cent 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 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 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 FACS may well have the problem the wrong way round. These markers of social decay may be symptoms of the problem, with the actual root cause being external economic factors. An increase of 35 per cent in homelessness services clients over the past four years in NSW does seem to underscore Smith and Priestly’s observations.
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.
“I won’t work with any of the majors.They don’t deliver what they tell the public they deliver.”
He claims that a government funded drop-in centre refused him entry after Tent City, on the grounds that it was undermining 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 a religious charity group that set up services in the Inner West as part of a wider scheme 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 camped at Wentworth Park in Glebe were evicted en masse last week. 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 [City of 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 [the Antiochian Church and Care for Street Kids Australia] 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.”