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‘Mayor of Martin Place’ a voice for Sydney’s homeless

The Mayor of Martin Place, Lanz Priestly has a long history of activism on behalf of the homeless.

Depending on your point of view, he’s either the Mayor of Martin Place or a Nightmare on Martin Place, as the most upmarket thoroughfare in Sydney finds itself the unlikely home to a tent city populated by the homeless and unemployed.

The driver of this uneasy clash of class and culture is a 72-year-old New Zealander who has just welcomed his 12th child into the world – this one with his latest girlfriend, aged 20.

Lanz Priestley, originally from Wellington, is a long-time street campaigner and social activist who seemingly knows how to play the ins and outs of politics better than the professionals.

So far, the green New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, and wily political survivor, Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore, have battled to keep up with Mr Priestley.

In fact, they have spent more time fighting one another over whose responsibility it is to move his rag-tag hundred or so campaigners who claim they have nowhere safe to go.

The tent city of homeless activists at Sydney’s Martin Place. Photo: AAP

On Tuesday, the two politicians were at it again − the Premier saying her government will legislate to remove the tent-dwellers if necessary, while the Lord Mayor said it was the government’s responsibility to find housing for them.

Ms Moore did say council was willing to contribute $100,000 towards establishing a permanent “safe space” − whatever that meant.

At one stage Ms Moore claimed to have struck a deal with Mr Priestley over such a place. But he then told The Daily Telegraph that he and the mayor had different definitions of what a “safe place” would mean.

Mr Priestley said he was prepared to “spend months if necessary” getting any deal, council or government, right.

The tent city has already been dismantled once, in June, but the campers soon found their way back, in part because of the 24/7 Street Kitchen that Mr Priestley and his volunteers operate there.

Indeed, Mr Priestley, has a long and chequered history in and around Martin Place, home of the Reserve Bank of Australia, among other “big end of town” operations.

A Martin Place fixture since 1991

He first set up camp there in 1991, attracted by the idea of getting in the faces of politicians across the road in the NSW Parliament and the ‘suits’ from the nearby Australian Securities Exchange.

As a leader of the Occupy Sydney grassroots movement, he was arrested for camping at Martin Place in 2011.

Well-spoken and engaging, the activist describes himself as a self-taught project manager who spent 10 years working in, of all things, the fashion industry.

Twenty years ago he sold his house in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – a pricey part of town – so he could help some of his children, the eldest now 47, with deposits for homes. He has also spent time working with homeless groups in Britain and Brazil, setting up squats.

“Squatting is passé,” Mr Priestley told The Daily Telegraph. “Now we head into the financial districts to make a point.”

Mr Priestley spends six months a year living on the streets because, he says, governments are more interested in maintaining their own interests than those of the homeless.

“I want to know what’s working from the point of view of the guys on the streets because they have absolutely no say in the programs that are run for them.”

He and his partner, Nina Wilson from Nowra, south of Sydney, who has also lived tough, are somewhat bemused by his Mayor of Martin Place moniker.

“I’m not a mayor, in my culture we don’t leave people in the street. We help the destitute.”

Mayor or nightmare, he gives no indication of going away any time soon.

Mike Safe is a Sydney-based writer. His new novel, The Last Long Drop, will be published by Impact Press, an imprint of Ventura Press, in November.

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