Fence hiding sad reality in affluent suburb

News

Inhabitants of a homelessness encampment in one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs have been moved on by the developers behind a controversial former theatre building.

As of last week, only a mattress remains of the burgeoning camp, which first sprang up in October last year underneath the awnings of the empty Metro-Minerva Theatre building in Potts Point.

The area has now also been fenced off to prevent other rough sleepers setting up shop.

The makeshift shelter, which housed two mattresses, a large tent for storage, and about 20 sleeping bags, came to be known as “Wayside After Hours” by the eight or so people who took shelter there every night.

A City of Sydney spokesperson said the section of Orwell St was private land and was not under the council’s jurisdiction.

They said the council was under the understanding, the developer owners of the building – Central Element – had requested intervention from police and “subsequently installed a barrier to deter further people from sleeping rough”.

Reports from earlier this year state Central Element had plans to sell the former theatre, alongside development application (DA) plans to convert the site into a boutique hotel.

“We believe that the people who were sleeping in the area are now in temporary accommodation and/or are continuing to engage with specialist homelessness services nearby to access long-term housing options,” the City of Sydney spokesperson said.

“The city follows the guidelines of the NSW Protocol for Homeless People in Public Places, which acknowledges that, like all other members of the public, people experiencing homelessness have a right to be in public places and to participate in public events, at the same time respecting the right of local communities to live in a safe and peaceful environment.”

Central Element did not respond to NCA NewsWire’s request for comment.

According to the latest street count statistics compiled by the City of Sydney, 280 rough sleepers were accounted for in February 2024, a slight increase from the 277 recorded the year prior.

Another 392 people also occupied crisis and temporary accommodation beds, 93 more than the year before.

Wayside Chapel chief executive and pastor Jon Owen, who is a familiar face to the area’s rough sleepers, said the group had been issued a move-on order.

However, he said that while move-on orders might “visibly clean up the streets,” they didn’t address the long-term issues related to homelessness.

“We still have 125,000 across Australia who are homeless. Rough sleepers are just the visible end of a nationwide problem,: Mr Owen said.

“This is always the way – the move-on always happens – that’s the reality of sleeping rough on the streets.

“It’s more of the out of sight, out of mind approach.”

Mr Owen also expressed concern for shifting the area’s homeless away from support services. This means vulnerable people would be further away from resources, like those offered by the Wayside Chapel, which offers food, outreach and community events.

“When they’re close by, we get a great opportunity to develop close relationships with them and make sure they’re OK,” he said.

“If they’re pushed out to areas with less services, they’re even less likely to get housed.”

In February, one of the camp’s permanent inhabitants, Abdul Elomar, who has since been moved into a community housing program, said the homeless camp had built up its own community.

“We get all these people who have been out for four, or five days, and they have nowhere to go,” he said

“We’ve got so many sleeping bags, and people will come and ask us for a sleeping bag and we’ll give them one.”