Fence hides sad reality in affluent suburb

Gate hiding sad truth in affluent suburb
The makeshift camp has been moved on. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

Inhabitants of a homelessness encampment in one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs have been moved on, with the owners of the site erecting a fence to prevent rough sleepers from occupying the area.

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

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.

Only a mattress is left of the homelessness encampment that was located underneath the Metro-Minerva Theatre awning. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short
Up until recently, the shelter housed up to eight people. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

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 understood 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 said Central Element had plans to sell the former theatre, alongside development application (DA) plans to convert the site into a boutique hotel.

Central Element’s head of lifestyle precincts Dean LaVigne said NSW Police carried out the move on order “without our knowledge or directive”.

However, the developers “did erect the barrier following the group moving on to deter further blockage of a fire exit. This was purely to maintain fire safety standards,” he added. 

When contacted, a NSW Police spokesperson deferred comment to the City of Sydney they said Kings Cross Police would continue to “protect and advocate for those that are vulnerable in the community”.

The City of Sydney spokesperson also said the dwellers who had occupied the area were “now in temporary accommodation and/or are continuing to engage with specialist homelessness services nearby to access long-term housing options”.

“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,” they said.

A barrier has now been erected outside the Metro-Minerva Theatre that prevents other homeless people from living there. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

Wayside Chapel chief executive and pastor Jon Owen, who is a familiar face to the area’s rough sleepers and was aware of the closure of the camp, 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.”

Abdullah Elomah previously lived at the Orwell St encampment. He’s since been moved into community housing. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Jessica Wang
Abdullah Elomah previously lived at the Orwell St encampment. He’s since been moved into community housing. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Jessica Wang

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.

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.”