A man of the street

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

Social activist Lanz Priestley — who died in November — was a passionate crusader for Sydney’s homeless.

Advocate for the homeless, Lanz Priestley — aka the Mayor of Martin Place — died last month of a brain bleed. His death was announced on Facebook on 2 November by his family who remembered him as a “selfless being”. “His work has helped, inspired, and united so many people throughout the world,” the statement read.

Priestley was the leader of the homeless occupation of Martin Place in Sydney’s CBD in 2017. The eightmonth standoff — and the Tent City occupants’ eventual eviction forced a public dialogue about homelessness in Australia and elevated the issue to global headlines. As Priestley told the New York Times, the Martin Place site was carefully chosen for the protest. “The decision makers who cause all forms of marginalisation and exploitation, Australia-wide, make those decisions here.”

A rough sleeper himself, Priestley held some unique insights into homelessness

“In eight months we had over 800 people through Tent City. There was food, shelter, somewhere they could leave their things in safety. They had all those things in one place, which frees them up to go and get themselves out of the shit. The reality is without Tent City, or a replacement, people simply don’t have anywhere to get these resources and help themselves.”

“With homelessness, I’ve looked aghast for the last couple of decades and said, well, for as long as they deal with homelessness after people become homeless, they will never solve homelessness. What we’re doing is dealing with [homelessness] after the fact. In order to stop it, we actually have to reach behind and turn off the tap. I could show you entire streets of empty houses that are owned by the state government. There’s all this social housing and no explanation as to why we can’t use it.”

“What we need to be looking at is taking housing out of the commodities basket. People would be shocked to hear me quoting Menzies but in his time as [Liberal] prime minister he took home ownership from 25 percent for people over 20 to 75 percent when he retired as PM — and he did that all through social housing. Social housing, in his model, encouraged people to buy. Singapore liked his model so much that they copied it and their model today is one of the best in the world.”

“I’m wondering why the hell [the homeless] can’t get help off the government that collects taxes on the basis that when you’re up, you pay taxes so that when you’re down, the government will support you.”

“I want to know what’s working from the point of view of the guys on the streets — because they’ve had absolutely no say in the programs that are run to help them. The programs run today by NGOs and the government are very much about maintaining self interest. The organisations involved are too endemically attached to the problem. Their vested interest is to grow their businesses.” 

“There’s an industry out there and a whole lot of bureaucrats that depend on homelessness existing and continuing to exist in the case of the NGOs for their growth, and in the case of the bureaucrats, for their jobs.”

“We need to hit the existing methodologies on the head. We need to say, ‘If the problem’s getting bigger, if we’re not looking for a zero problem solution, then your solutions aren’t working’. If we want to fix the things that society finds problematic then we need to do it as a community. We need to get over the idea that getting government to do anything will ever work.”

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