Shocking sight in affluent Sydney suburb

Up to eight people a night take shelter at the new encampment outside a closed down Sydney theatre. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

A new homelessness encampment, known by inhabitants as “Wayside After Hours,” has sprung up in one of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs.

Tucked underneath the awnings of the empty Metro Minerva Theatre Building in Potts Point is a burgeoning camp for the area’s rough sleepers, with up to eight people taking shelter there every night.

The makeshift Orwell St home boasts two mattresses, a large tent for storage and about 20 sleeping bags, which are lent to fellow rough sleepers as needed.

Propped on a wall is a framed print which reads: “Home is where the heart is”.

On the right side of the camp, the words: ‘Do not do drugs here,’ are written into the wall.

Up to eight people a night sleep at an encampment at Potts Point in Sydney’s inner city. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

Abdul Elomar has lived at the encampment since October 2023.

He spiralled into drug use, job loss, and homelessness after his 18-year-old son, Omar, was killed in 2020.

“There were a few rainy days and (another man who lived here) said to me: ‘Come stay here,’” Mr Elomar says.

“If you look at my story, four years ago my son was murdered. I was never homeless back then, I was an addict, I was living in and out of accommodation but I was not homeless.

“After I lost my son, I can’t even hold a job down for a week. It’s no one’s fault, it’s my fault – but I can’t stop drinking, I turned to drugs, I’ve been to rehab.”

Abdullah Elomah lives at the Orwell St encampment. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Jessica Wang
Abdul Elomar lives at the Orwell St encampment. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Jessica Wang

The former Bankstown resident is one of the two more permanent people who live at the encampment.

While the improvised home makes them vulnerable to theft, the spot protects them from the elements.

The awning blocks the rain and sun, and the narrow street acts like a wind tunnel, which takes the sting out of a 40C day.

Mr Elomar describes the makeshift home as “Wayside after-hours,” referencing the not-for-profit mission and community centre, just a street over.

“We get all these people who have been out for four, or five days, and they have no where to go,” he says.

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

While encampments like the one on Orwell St offers protection, it’s part of a growing trend of homelessness and housing insecurity spurred on by growing rents, rising cost-of-living, and a crisis in the availability of temporary housing in NSW.

An influx of more people needing help has increased pressure on community programs, which offer food outreach and care co-ordination.

Up to eight people take shelter at the makeshift home every night. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

In the past quarter, Wayside Chapel chief executive and pastor Jon Owen has seen “almost a doubling” of people seeking food, basic amenities like toiletries, socks and underwear, and emergency support, especially housing.

“We’re seeing a lot more people who have been holding it together for 12 to 18 months, and they haven’t been able to sustain it,” he says.

In the 12 months to September 2023, the Wayside Chapel recorded a 64 per cent increase in daily visitors, an 88 per cent increase in the amount of food provided, and 53 per cent increase in the pieces of clothes, underwear and socks provided.

They’ve also reported a 126 per cent increase in the instances of care co-ordination required by visitors.

Wayside Chapel’s pastor and chief executive said the amount of people using their services has doubled in the past quarter. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Nikki Short

Rev Owen knows most of the Wayside community on a first-name basis, including those who live at the Orwell St encampment.

He says he’s noticed a “growing small number” of encampments increasing in the affluent suburbs of Potts Point, Darlinghurst, and Kings Cross, as people “congregate for safety and security”.

With Sydney struggling through a hot and humid summer, the weather poses an extra threat for the area’s rough sleepers, says Rev Owen.

“We lose a lot more people in this time of the year, than we do in winter,” he says.

Warm nights, which increases the rates of rats roaming the street, mean people aren’t able to get a good, or safe, night’s sleep, and instead attempt to nap during the day when the heat and humidity are at its worst.

He says they can resort to using alcohol as a sleep aid, resulting in severe dehydration.

“It’s a really critical time of year, particularly as services like ours have been under sustained pressure,” he says.

According to the most recent data, the number of people rough sleeping in NSW is growing.

Figures from the 2023 NSW street count recorded 1623 people sleeping rough between February 2 to 27 2023 – a 34 per cent year-on-year increase.

The City of Sydney local government area reported the third highest increase in figures, with numbers increasing by 23 per cent from 225 to 227.

However, Homelessness NSW chief Dom Rowe says visible homelessness – life rough sleepers – is merely the tip of the iceberg, with NSW facing a “homelessness tsunami”.

“For every person who sets up camp in a park, there are dozens who are forced to remain in a violent or unsafe home or spend their days looking for the next couch to sleep on,” Ms Rowe says.

However, while frontline providers, like emergency or temporary housing services are already at “breaking point”, many expect the demand will only increase, Ms Rowe says.

“An increasing number of people are just one rent rise away from homelessness because of rising costs, vanishing rental availability.

“If two people walk into a frontline homelessness provider in NSW needing temporary accommodation today – whether it be in inner Sydney or the regions – one of them will be turned away.”