by Larissa Payne
Mr Lance Priestly serves the homeless in Martin Place.
“I’ve always had a sense that we either go up together or down together,” says Mr Priestly. “And when poverty has become an industry, when charities are mostly businesses that exist by keeping the marginalised marginalised, some of us don’t want a bar of it.”
Mr Priestly helped establish Sydney’s first 24/7 homeless support network as an offshoot from the Occupy Sydney protest against corporate corruption and neo-liberal globalisation. It is run by entirely by volunteers and community donations.
“Homelessness is a by-product of the corporate excesses that the Occupy movement talks about. It would be remiss of us not to point the figure at JP Morgan or the Macquarie Bank while gazing over the heads of the homeless,” says Mr Priestly.
Originally from Ruatoria, in rural New Zealand, Mr Priestly experienced the hardship of Ruatoria’s 85 per cent unemployment rate during the 1970s and how it led to chronic homelessness.
“It was the same in the early 1900s but the difference between then and recent times is debt,” Mr Priestly says. “Most of the community left town to pay off a house they would never get to live in. It made me question how debt is unacceptable in its current form.”
Before 1994, Mr Priestly worked in management for Land Lease and reworked James Hardy’s occupational health and safety requirements after the asbestos debacle. During this time, he helped develop Just Enough Faith, an organisation that serviced the homeless community for 17 years.
After a Government take-over that imposed what Mr Priestly considered “red tape and restrictions”, he concluded that in order to properly serve and understand the homeless community, he would need to become an independent part of it.
“I needed to understand if what we were doing was relevant. This wasn’t possible from the comfortable position we sat in. So I chose to live on the streets,” says Mr Priestly. “All my perceptions about homelessness were completely out of sync with reality.”
Mr Priestly decided he would not work with established charities because he regarded them as corporations with many of the goals, such as growth, of corporate business.
He suggested that protecting business and government interests has led to the 32 evictions, known to the Occupy Sydney 24/7 homeless support network, since July 3. When the City of Sydney Council moved to dismantle Occupy Sydney in June, there were objections from just two Councillors, Labor Councillor Linda Scott and Greens Councillor Irene Doutney.
“I found the elitist attitude behind this move absolutely disgusting,” says Ms Doutney. “The Occupy protestors cause no harm. They’ve kept the site tidy, even cleaning up after people who make a mess when they emerge drunk from the bars nearby, and have a rule of not approaching people who don’t approach them first.”
During the estimated 760 days that Mr Priestly has slept rough and served the homeless through Occupy Sydney, he has been arrested 58 times for apparent “camping” yet no infringement notice has been given and no conviction granted. The courts have heard 128 similar cases from Occupy Sydney activists with only one conviction.
“They have no legislative powers to stop us feeding the homeless,” says Mr Priestly. “They use the police to impose the desires of Council and government only to have the courts insist they’re wasting their time and taxpayers’ money.”
Regardless of obstacles, Mr Priestly’s goal is the eradication of homelessness.
“Laws need to be changed,” says Mr Priestly. “We need conversation about sustainable incomes that reflect living affordability within a worker’s city. City cleaners get $18 per hour. How can they afford to live in the city? Campbelltown and Penrith don’t exist to serve the city. We need to address Sydney’s economic apartheid.”