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Olympic experience

May 21 2009
Will London follow Sydney? Will London follow Sydney?
The Olympics are great for tourism, but homeless people and those on lower incomes lose out Olympic games are rarely staged without controversy, and the London Olympics has already attracted criticism over budget blowouts, planning problems and inconvenience to local residents. But when the starter's gun sounds in July 2012, and London's filled with the goodwill of the Games and the chorus of national anthems, will all London residents have reason to cheer? If the experience of other host cities is anything to go by, the Olympic frenzy can also result in citizens' rights being affected; civil liberties and freedoms being curtailed; and some groups, such as our readers, being marginalised. During the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the state government flexed its muscles and implemented the Protocol for Homeless People in Public Places, which contained provisions regarding the civil rights of homeless people and people in public places. Although never incorporated into legislation, its effect, when applied with existing laws, was to create 'move-on' policies around major landmarks such as the Opera House, Darling Harbour, The Rocks and Martin Place. In Sydney, City Council rangers and private security guards were given new short-term powers to remove 'by reasonable force' anyone deemed causing a public nuisance in one of these places. 'Offences' such as consuming alcohol, demonstrating, begging or camping came under the powers of local rangers, who encouraged 'offenders' to leave an area. Reports from community-based groups alleged that the regulations enabled city authorities to round up hundreds of homeless men and women and convey them out of the city. A similar story had unfurled four years earlier at the Atlanta Olympics, where it was reported that 9,000 homeless people were forcibly removed and relocated to out-of-sight locations. Admittedly, temporary accommodation was then offered, but people were forcibly removed from the city in the process. During the Olympic period, Sydney police set conditional bail for minor street offences, "social nuisance" and general "antisocial behaviour". The effect was that police targeted young people, the homeless or anyone deemed to be "obstructing, intimidating or harassing" tourists and visitors to the city. You could be either locked up or shipped out. The city sparkled without the image of the home- less clouding the Olympic spirit. In response to questions about new measures and the Protocol, the then Lord Mayor of Sydney, Frank Sartor, commented: "We want to know what it will take to get these people off the streets. You could shine lights on them to make life uncomfortable, but they will only move to another hole somewhere else." There was also a basic bed shortage, as boarding houses usually offering crisis accommodation were transformed to accommodate paying international guests. Applications from people ordinarily dependent on such accommodation were not accepted. A boarding house in one inner-city suburb gave residents four days' notice of eviction and subsequently ejected 20 residents with mental health problems in a last-minute pre-Olympic dash for cash. Speaking at the time, the Reverend Harry Herbert, from the Olympic Social Impacts Committee, said: "Every day, organisations in Sydney are searching for accommodation for homeless people. When the Olympics are on, their options will be very limited. A lot of the places they normally used won't be available." Winning an Olympic bid usually results in a cash injection and prosperity for the tourism industry, but the homeless and people on lower incomes are not victorious. This trend has been well documented by the research of Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, who presented a paper on the topic at a social trends conference in 2006. She studied the effect of Olympic bids made by Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Beijing, Toronto, Athens and New York, and concluded that problems faced by homeless people and their living conditions are worse during the Olympics. "The actual post-Olympic situation in recent host cities suggests that an affordable housing legacy is unlikely to materialise," wrote Jefferson, "In fact, conditions for homeless and inadequately housed people are exacerbated by hosting the Olympics." Her paper notes housing trends in Olympic host cities, including evictions in low-rent housing, particularly in Olympic precincts; a decrease of boarding-house beds; inflated real estate prices; weakened tenant-protection laws; the criminalisation of poverty and homelessness; and temporary restriction of human rights, particularly freedom of assembly. As 2012 approaches for London, readers should be wary.