a tale of the new australian city: rough sleeping, real estate, and the right to the street

by David Boarder Giles and Anna Carlson

 

Though down on my luck, I kept up my pluck  |  Thinking justice might temper the laws.  |  But the farce has been played, and the Government aid  |  Ain’t extended to squatters, old son.

– Banjo Patterson, The Broken Down Squatter

 

It’s early February in Melbourne and police are guarding the footpath. Dozens of them. A yellow fence cordons off the empty bluestone pavement alongside the iconic, century-old facade of Flinders Street Station, which is scheduled for renovation. It’s afternoon. Bystanders are gathering in the hundreds now, spilling onto the asphalt.

But they’re not who the fence is for.

Maybe a dozen people have been sleeping rough here for weeks. Behind the cordon are scattered remnants of their residency. A shoe. A water bottle. A floral pillow. A cardboard sign: #WHEREDOWESLEEPTONIGHT. They are men, women, young, middle-aged, Australian-born, refugees, able-bodied, and struggling with disabilities. They’ve camped together for community and security. They picked this spot strategically: it’s close to running water and toilets; charity vans bring food and mobile showers to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a block away; drop-in centres and clinics are nearby; and maybe most importantly, they are in the public eye. It’s safer to be visible. But moreover, the public is a resource. For food, supplies, and cash, but just as importantly, for community, conversation, and recognition. Indeed, the very definition of “public” implies a commons. As the philosopher Henri Lefebvre suggested, the city is just such a common good—produced and consumed collectively. That’s why they’re here.

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Simon, a member of the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria stands in solidarity with campers evicted from alongside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, February 2017. (Photo: David Boarder Giles)

But like many of the 250 or so Melburnians sleeping rough in the CBD, they’ve been told to move on. They’ve been offered three days’ crisis accommodation (along with the odd bedbug bite). After that, their options are rooming houses (exploitatively expensive, often dangerous and decrepit), years on a waiting list for public housing, or the streets again. They’ve chosen to stay at Flinders Street for as long as possible. That’s why the police are here. It’s also why supporters from the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria are here in solidarity. In tomorrow’s papers, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle will call this a “running sore” of protest.

Worse for them, in the following week the City Council will vote in bylaws that make it illegal to sleep rough or leave possessions unattended. According to Activities Local Law 2017, if they unroll a swag, or put their bags down to use the toilet, they risk a $250 fine or greater. Victorian Police Chief Graham Ashton, who requested the bylaws, defends them with an accusation that these campers are not only “pretending” to be homeless, but are a “disgusting” sight and a deterrent to the crowds visiting Melbourne today for the Australian Open.

Aside from being spurious—as a conversation with the campers demonstrates—Ashton’s comments are telling. They outline the competing interests at work. Like any commons, the city street is subject to endless struggle among stakeholders. (Tennis-goers. Rough sleepers. Police. And so on.) Indeed, councils across the United States have long employed comparable bans on sleeping, sitting, begging, urinating, and sharing food, in what’s often characterised as “taking back the city” from homeless bodies. In following suit, the City of Melbourne is wrestling with age-old questions: Who has a right to public space? For what purposes?

But the terrain of struggle is changing. The Australian city is being remade by new global configurations of stakeholders, from real estate speculators to refugees. Melbourne’s rough sleeping ban formalises this renewed struggle. It must be seen as a sign of the times, one that will be heeded by cities around the country with parallel struggles and aspirations. It remains to be seen who will have a right to the the twenty-first century Australian city.

 

Beneath the Southern Cross  |  and the canopy of the rainforest along the riverbank  |  the kuril, which still survives here  |  dug out its nest, and left its tracks.

– Lilla Watson, detail from Kurilpa Country

 

It’s late October in Brisbane and the heat is radiating up from the concrete. A kilometre from the CBD, through the murky tangle of the Brisbane River and the gash of the motorway, sits Kurilpa Peninsula. Connecting the two sites is the Kurilpa Bridge: an architectural marvel, award-winning, a signpost in Brisbane’s rush toward the global. The bridge bears a cosmopolitan family resemblance to developments across the metropolis, part of Brisbane’s blueprint for a “new world city”. At its southern end, the bridge meets Kurilpa Point Park, an open patch of grass with a scattering of barbecues and picnic tables. This is Jagera country. It has a long memory. At its northern end, the Turrbal land of the CBD, the bridge meets the monolithic glass-and-concrete headquarters of coal seam gas giant Santos, before winding down toward the stern facade of the Queensland Magistrate’s Court. A meeting-point between settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, Kurilpa Bridge is an auspicious place from which to ask questions about the city Brisbane is becoming.

Underneath the bridge is cool, dark and disconcertingly empty: an expanse of grey concrete ends abruptly, disappearing into uneven dirt and dying grass. A few weeks earlier, this place was home to an encampment: people seeking shelter, visibility, proximity, safety-in-numbers. But, like so many before them, their presence here—precarious, uncertain, messy—proved incompatible with the city Brisbane is trying to become. Today, there is no visible archive of their occupation. Welcome to the new world city.

The Brisbane Times first covered their story under the headline: “South Brisbane vagrants set to be moved on.” The terminology is important: since at least 2006, Queensland Police have had expanded powers under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 to “move on” people in public places if their presence causes anxiety to another person. The article quotes a Council spokesperson who claimed to have received “12 complaints since August…about the group’s anti-social behaviour.” The precise nature of the behaviour was never explained. Queensland laws also prohibit a range of specific activities in public places (begging, sleeping, drinking, etcetera), as well as broadly-defined “public nuisance” offences, which have been used to criminalise anything from swearing to protesting. Most of these carry substantial fines, ranging from $250 to $3000. Brisbane City Council also routinely confiscate property left in public spaces.

Meanwhile, across the bridge, Queensland grapples with the end of its mining boom. The terrain is familiar: as investment in the old extractive and manufacturing industries dwindles, capital needs to expand. It seeks out new geographies in which to speculate. Stand on Kurilpa Bridge and look in any direction and you’ll see a skyline crammed with cranes; across the inner city, suburbs are a mess of building sites and traffic jams. There are at least 10,000 new apartments being built in Brisbane, a further 30,000 slated to hit the market in the next three years. The median starting price will be around $380,000. Brisbane is under construction.

Lord Mayor Graham Quirk defended the evictions from Kurilpa Point Park, saying “I could not… allow a township to grow at that location… which of course is the very same location that (French student) Sophie Collombet was murdered.” Such reflexive association of homeless people with violence—despite solid evidence that they are more often its victims than its perpetrators—contributes to their ongoing criminalisation. And as gentrification re-shapes surrounding neighbourhoods, the few “common” spaces available to homeless residents are subject to heightened scrutiny, policing, and the threat of violence: a 2006 study by the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic found that at least 75% of the homeless people surveyed had been “moved-on” in the past six months, and close to the same percentage had experienced police harassment. Such spatial enclosures compound other forms of exclusion. Several of the evicted campers, for example, were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Many were grappling with significant mental and physical health issues.

Despite their eviction, the problem remains: there is not adequate accommodation for them. Many will be back here again. The next morning, the Brisbane Times ran the headline: “South Brisbane Homeless could be moved on to nowhere.”

 

Violence is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old.

– David Harvey, The Right to the City

 

Perhaps most telling in the headline is the word “nowhere”. They can’t be moved on because there is no place for them. “Homelessness” is not a characteristic of individuals, but rather a corollary of the making and unmaking of place—and particularly place-making projects that produce urban spaces antagonistic to certain human lives and habitations. To make this point, scholar Craig Willse suggests we describe it as a structurally produced pattern of “housing deprivation”. On any given night in Australia 105,237 people experience this deprivation. This is not a consequence of individuals’ choices or limitations, but rather of the making and unmaking of housing. Close to a quarter of Australia’s “housing deprived” are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; to talk about “homelessness” here is to talk about colonisation, the unmaking of Indigenous place, about spatial inequality and structural violence.

Such violent place-making has always shaped struggles over the city. In the twenty-first century, however, place-making projects increasingly aspire to the generic placelessness of a “world city”—echoing the placelessness of transnational capital itself. This global imaginary, however, erases the concrete, local modes of development and dispossession upon which it relies: fickle, itinerant global capital must remake the city according to its own needs. Melbourne’s prized title of “most liveable city” is, for example, awarded by The Economist magazine according to criteria suited to investors and firms who need to open branches, make conference calls, buy suits, attend power-lunches, or take in the tennis.

On these investors’ wish-lists, property development—place-making—ranks higher and higher. It becomes an end in itself. In an increasingly volatile, financialised global market, real estate speculation has become a new kind of global currency. The inevitable result, as urban theorist Peter Marcuse points out, is that housing markets boom and bust without regard for the people displaced by them. Housing deprivation increases in direct proportion to increasing rents. In total, one out of seven people on the planet now sleeps rough or squats with no formal lease or title.

Return to Melbourne, for example, where Lord Mayor Doyle spruiks a new project: the redevelopment of the 130 year–old Queen Victoria Market, complete with 58-storey residential power. Pitted against both heritage-minded Melburnians and the state government, Doyle has argued that the tower provides 56 units of “affordable” housing. But as former Councillor Richard Foster pointed out in a recent forum, this amounts to lip-service: the affordable units make barely half of the city’s stated target for new developments. The net effect will inflate Melbourne’s already prohibitive rents. (No doubt, making the city more “liveable” according to The Economist.)

Meanwhile over 80,000 vacant residential units idle across the city, waiting lists for public housing grow, and rooming houses continue to fleece vulnerable Melburnians who have no other option but the street. All this while 1,760 new residents move here every week. No wonder the CBD saw a 70% growth in rough sleeping at the last count.

These tectonic shifts play out in struggles over public space. In the last two years, for example, Melbourne’s landscape has been twice transformed: first, by an unprecedented number of semi-permanent encampments; and second, over the last six months, as the city has moved them on. Where specific mattresses, tents, or shopping trolleys had become familiar landmarks for passersby on Elizabeth, Swanston, Bourke, or Flinders Streets, now there is no evidence of their ever having been there.

These evictions, and laws which authorise them, are an almost inevitable result of the inequities occasioned by a new world city’s grand designs. The city of the twenty-first century may meet these challenges with a closed fist, or with a creativity and largesse that is truly world-class. It remains to be seen, then, how the new Australian city will answer the age-old question of who has a right to the street?

(This essay appeared in Arena Magazine, March 2017.)

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About artnoiserhetoric

So much to say, so little time... Watch this space.
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