Is There A 'Right' Kind Of Homelessness?


The Occupy movement, camped out in inner cities across the world, found immediate resonance in those who occupy public space on a more regular basis. That is, people who live and sleep outdoors: on the streets, in parks and improvised dwellings; also known as "sleeping rough". In social work and social policy terms, these are people experiencing "primary homelessness".

Occupy Sydney, now in the 108th day of its presence on Martin Place, is no exception. To be sure, participants in Occupy Sydney include several people who were already living homeless in the Sydney CBD. And, as the policing of the site has intensified (with over 70 arrests, around 50 fines, and numerous instances of being woken, taunted, physically removed and having property confiscated by the NSW Police), a tension between sleeping outdoors, using public space and convening public assembly has become increasingly evident.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, clearly stated her position on Occupy at the City of Sydney Council meeting of 7 November, 2011. On behalf of Occupy participants, Greens Councillor Irene Doutney brought a motion to the meeting seeking the support of Council for the Occupy site to continue operating in Martin Place. As the motion stated, "the Occupy Sydney protests are part of a global movement designed to highlight issues of social and economic inequality, issues that the City of Sydney is committed to addressing".

The motion also requested action on the "excessive force used by police in breaking up the demonstration" prior to that date. Cr Doutney’s motion was defeated at Council, with Cr Moore refusing to condemn police violence experienced by the protesters, saying she believed there had been violence on both sides. According to meeting observers, Cr Moore also noted that she was sympathetic to the broad aims of Occupy but would not support "camping out in the city".

If gross global inequality is the focus of Occupy, it is its manifestation as "camping out in the city" that has garnered the most disapproval from authorities. It is on this point in particular that Occupy protesters and the primary homeless have found themselves in close proximity.

As one participant, "K", says: "the Lord Mayor affirms the City’s commitment to the homelessness protocol where rough sleepers are not to be moved on, yet says she does not support camping out in the city"; adding: "the Lord Mayor declares that she supports the ideas of Occupy, but refuses to support the method in which it operates all over the world — by permanently occupying public space in the inner city." This is particularly concerning given that, in the words of fellow occupier "M", "around five people who live on the streets of the CBD have been arrested in relation to their involvement in Occupy."

Take the case of Lance Priestley. A homeless man who has been active in Occupy throughout its existence in Martin Place, Priestley faced the Downing Centre Local Court in mid-January. He was arrested and held by NSW police on the charge of camping, in apparent contravention of the Local Government Act Section 632 (1) (the section that mandates compliance with Council notices, such as ‘No Camping’). Police argued that the crime was constituted by Priestley’s use of a sleeping bag on the Martin Place pavement.

In response, Priestley argued that camping is not defined by the Council or at law. He referred, in the absence of such a definition, to the Macquarie Concise Dictionary (5th ed.) which states that camping constitutes "tents and tent-like structures in a holiday type situation". This, Priestley argued, does not adequately describe the act of lying in a sleeping bag on the pavement.

The Local Court magistrate dismissed the case on the basis that the police could not prove Priestley was camping on Martin Place. As fellow Occupy Sydney participants celebrated outside the court, a Ten News journalist approached Priestley’s defence lawyer, Peter Lavac QC. Their question was, "is this less about a protest and more about a group of homeless people bonding?"

In M’s words: "It’s almost like, you’re not going to be hassled for being homeless as long as you stay quiet and isolated and act like an abject victim of society. But as soon as you make a public statement about your homelessness and link that to social and economic problems such as income inequality, housing affordability and prejudice, then you’re going to get into trouble."

Whatever terms Ten News or others may use to describe Occupy’s manifestation in Sydney and elsewhere in Australia, the movement has undoubtedly shed light onto the persistent fact of social and economic inequality in this country, for which homelessness is a clear indicator. And, as Occupy Sydney has shown, perhaps it is not always so easy to separate the "protester" and the "homeless" when it comes to expressing outrage at that inequality and imagining how it could be otherwise.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.