More evictions likely as repression of Bendigo Street occupation intensifies

Activists defy police in Bendigo Street, Collingwood, 2 Nov.

A ‘final’ crackdown on the ongoing Bendigo Street protest-occupation seems likely as Victoria Police execute heavy-handed evictions and government rhetoric against occupiers gets increasingly extreme.

Melbourne is in the midst of a housing crisis, yet an estimated 82,700 properties sit vacant across the city. A significant number of these are owned by the government.

There are 34,700 waiting for public housing in Victoria. The public housing waiting list is over ten years long. This is why an estimated 22,000 people are homeless in Melbourne, and this is why increasing numbers of people sleep rough in the CBD, unable to find even the most basic shelter.

At the same time, the Victorian government owns a large portfolio of vacant properties in Collingwood and Parkville which were compulsorily acquired for the failed East-West Link project.

The East-West Link project was cancelled after the 2014 Victorian state election, and the state government had announced plans to sell-off houses acquired for the project. Two years after the East West Link project was scrapped the bulk of these houses remain in government hands, and many sit vacant.

The solution seems obvious. People need houses. The government owns hundred of vacant houses. Developers and property speculators sit on tens of thousands more. There is enough space to house everyone, right?

It was in this context that homeless people, activists and supporters initiated a protest-occupation of the swath of vacant housing on Bendigo Street in Collingwood in March this year. The actions of the Bendigo Street occupiers have put housing, housing vacancies, and the wash-up from the East West Link project in the public spotlight.

The demands raised by the Homeless Persons Union back in March remain critical in the context of the housing crisis:

The occupiers of the properties have made the following demands and refuse to leave until they are met … All unoccupied properties acquired for the East-West Link that are still in the government’s possession to be added to the public housing register … [and] the Andrews government to say how they intend to provide housing for 25,000 homeless people

After six months of occupation, the Andrews government appears to be readying for a crackdown.

Police action at the occupation is becoming increasingly regular and heavy handed. On Friday, Victoria Police evicted a homeless indigenous family from 13 Bendigo Street. Three people were arrested.

Activists responded by re-occupying.

The Victorian government responded in turn with riot-police.

The absurd situation now, is that the Victorian government are now employing private security guards to sit in vacant houses in order to lock out homeless families.

The Minister for Housing, Martin Foley, has stepped up attacks on occupiers, with the significant support of the Herald Sun.

The end-game for the Victorian government is the sale of as many of the acquired East-West link homes on the private market as possible.

The state government is attempting to recoup any money it can after spending $1.1 billion dollars to cancel the East-West Link project contracts. The state government was open about this objective prior to the Bendigo Street occupation.

However, in the face of criticism raised by the occupation and others, the state government has periodically announced that this or that house held by the state government will be converted into “social housing”. What this means in practice is that one or two houses are leased by the government to the Salvation Army.

Occupiers and others are rightly critical of the role played by the Salvation Army. Aside from being a religious organization with a history of homophobia, the Salvation Army does not provide the kind of secure housing that the public housing system does. “Social housing” leases are often conditional and rents are often significantly higher than the means assessed rents of the public system.

Nonetheless, the idea that the Salvation Army “do good” remains commonplace, and the state government have used this to create the political basis for attacking the occupation. The government simply announces that this or that house under occupation is now leased to the Salvation Army, and occupiers are all that stands in the way of the religious creepers doing their “good work”!

In recent weeks the campaign against the occupation has gone further. Martin Foley has claimed that occupiers are “armed” “muggers” “sex offenders” and more. The Herald Sun and others are actively canvassing for “terrified residents” desperate for the state to save them from “selfish squatters”.

The rhetoric is utterly disconnected from the reality that actually exists on Bendigo Street in Collingwood; the reality is that hundreds of people have come together over six months to raise a demand for a right to housing.

The importance of this action

The government hates the Bendigo Street occupation. The Herald Sun bemoans the $1.1 billion squat. For this reason alone it deserves your support!

Bendigo Street has shown that the direct action of homeless people occupying vacant property can be a politically powerful act. The act of occupying creates a situation that the government cannot readily ignore, it forces the government to act, either with concession or repression, in order to end this affront to property.

The Bendigo Street occupation demonstrates the rank hypocrisy of the state government, bemoaning homelessness whilst sitting on a portfolio of vacant homes.

The state government is desperate to undermine the inherent political legitimacy of this action, so that they can more freely utilize police violence to shut it down. They have not been successful so far because of the strong support for the action by activists, neighbors and the wider community.

But the state is preparing to act, and repression of the protest-occupation is imminent. Two things are required to deter the government, and hopefully force them towards concession.

The first is strong support to resist any eviction. The success of the police is not a foregone conclusion, a couple of hundred people willing to get in the way can transform an eviction situation.

The second is a willingness by activists to continue breaking the law, and to continue re-opening and re-occupying vacant government owned houses. For as long as this continues to happen, the state government will not be able to achieve its objectives: an end to the situation and the sale of these properties on the private market.

Until then, Stop the rot, squat the lot!

For information and updates, follow the HPUV and Houses Need People.

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