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Building on Common Ground

In October, NSW Premier Nathan Rees received widespread community support when he announced a plan to permanently help some of the 27,000 of his citizens who are homeless every night. On November 19, NSW Housing Minister David Borger informed the media that the DA would be placed that day with the City of Sydney reports the South Sydney Herald of December 2009.

The initiative will model the Common Ground Housing concept begun in New York in the early 1990s by Rosanne Haggerty, who was present when the Minister visited the Camperdown site to announce the DA. The Common Ground project approach has now reduced homelessness in New York by 50 per cent, saved huge amounts of funding and is being reproduced in many cities in the US, as well as in most State capitals in Australia. Therese Rein is the Australian patron of Common Ground Housing.

City of Sydney Council, Housing New South Wales and not-for-profit partners such as the Mercy Foundation will join forces to offer around 90 of Sydney’s homeless their own apartments in this first Common Ground endeavour in the State. Architectural firm, Hassell, and developer, Grocon, are providing their services at cost. MA Housing, a division of Mission Australia will be the community housing provider for the project.

The building will have a 24-hour concierge and programs such as drug and alcohol counselling, health support, and education and employment training will be available in the complex. The various services provided will also be offered to the residents already living in the Public Housing on either sides of the new development.

The proposed site of the purpose built accommodation is vacant land between two existing housing department blocks in Camperdown. The concept plans require the demolition of a small section of one of these blocks, known as Alexander Terraces and the resulting displacement of some of the residents who have spent most of their lives in the units.

However, in discussing this dislocation with Minister David Borger, it appears that although things were not easy in the beginning, many of the issues are gradually being resolved. There will be six households affected and careful arrangements are being made for the relocation, with each tenant holding personal discussions with the Department. Three of the residents have decided to group together, to keep their long-term friendship going. They will be moving to an attractive unit in the Inner West. Housing NSW will cover all residents’ removal costs, pay for the reconnection of electricity, gas, phone and internet as well as for three months mail redirection.

Remaining residents in the Terraces have been assured that the heritage issues related to their buildings will be respected and that their courtyards will remain private to them.

Although some public grassed land will be lost in the development, the new building will make access to open space a priority and there will be a community garden available to residents.

In response to the concerns of residents about open space in the area, City of Sydney Councillor and Greens representative, Chris Harris, has has asked the Council “to meet with Housing NSW to investigate the prospects of jointly developing some adjacent open space that forms part of the Joanna Odea complex into a park that can be used by tenants of public housing, the Common Ground project and other residents from the local community. This will serve the dual purpose of providing alternative open space for a park and integrating the new project into the community.”

Cr Harris says: “With good management, sensitivity and a cooperative approach between Housing NSW and the City of Sydney we can create an innovative project that begins to tackle homelessness in Sydney and provides more affordable accommodation and open space for local residents. The site is considered ideal, being close to transport, a hospital and the city.”

Mercy Foundation is one of the key players in the Common Ground housing project. The Foundation is a Catholic philanthropic organisation owned by the North Sydney Sisters of Mercy. Their current focus is on homelessness and their CEO, Felicity Reynolds, believes Common Ground offers a real opportunity to break the cycle for many of Sydney’s most vulnerable.

“It is nonsense to believe, as many people do, that the homeless are that way by choice. They usually have a range of problems that have forced them into this predicament,” Ms Reynolds said. “The longer someone stays homeless, the deeper the entrenchment and adaptation to that lifestyle.

“Studies have shown that providing stable housing first and then offering on-site support services after that gives the best chance of ending chronic homelessness. The building will have a tenancy mix with low income workers and students as well as the formerly homeless living in a socially inclusive environment.” 

In December 2000 the Federal Government released a White Paper on Homelessness entitled ‘The Road Home’. The Paper’s goals were to halve homelessness and provide supported accommodation to all rough sleepers by 2020. 

Photo:: Artist’s impression of proposed Common Ground development in Camperdown

Source: South Sydney Herald December 2009