The sad story behind this picture of police 'moving on' charity workers

Brooke Rolfe
News Reporter

A charity group handing out hand sanitiser and coffee to homeless people say they were moved on by police over concerns they were in breach of outdoor gathering and social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sydney 24/7 Street Kitchen and Safe Space Community claimed they were the only group supplying essential items to rough sleepers in Sydney’s Martin Place amid outbreak.

On Friday however, they said they were instructed to disperse by officers patrolling the area because they were defying current health advice by congregating in a public space.

Lance Priestley being moved on by police in Sydney's Martin Place on Friday. Source: Supplied

Organiser of the group’s Coffee Brigade and Hand Sanitising Service, Lance Priestley, told Yahoo News Australia they were told to leave despite everyone observing social distancing rules.

“They came at about 6.30pm and they were telling us that under the modified health legislation that it was an offence for us to set up like that,” Mr Priestley said.

“One of the things we were doing was getting all the people in the community to sanitise their hands because nobody else was doing that. But they told us we aren’t allowed to do it.”

Mr Priestley said members of the homeless community were thanking the charity group “profusely” for providing the service, which sadly had now been forced to cease.

One officer moving the support group on apparently suggested the rough sleepers could purchase their own products with the additional funding recently made available by the government.

Given that many of the homeless people were from New Zealand however, Mr Priestly said not all of those who required the funding had access to it.

Mr Priestley (left) and two other support workers at their Martin Place set-up. This was before outdoor gathering limits were tightened to two people. Source: Supplied

Yahoo News Australia contacted NSW Police about the incident but a media spokesperson said inquiries over individual coronavirus incidents could not all be addressed due to a high volume of coronavirus-related requests.

“We are encouraging the media to reinforce and prioritise the messages from the Prime Minister, NSW Premier and NSW Police Force Commissioner, as well as representatives from NSW Health,” the response read.

Homeless ‘totally abandoned’

While he held no malice towards officers on Friday who were simply following instruction, Mr Priestly feared long-term flow on effects of government policy would have even more of a devastating consequence.

“It’s leaving these people totally abandoned in the middle of a pandemic crisis,” he said.

He expressed how it was nearly impossible for homeless people to self-isolate while living on the street, and similarly difficult for them to access housing, particularly in the current climate.

Mr Priestley fears the homeless population “will balloon” when the outbreak settles, as thousands of people who lost jobs during the closure of thousands of businesses struggle to get back on their feet.

He cited confusion over what would happen when the six-month moratorium on rental evictions was up, saying many could be left on the street if they were forced to pay up on skipped rent payments.

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