The Tent City Extravaganza – The CEO’s Report

Just after Christmas 2020, a tent city sprang up in Pioneer Park, central Fremantle, between Fremantle Railway Station and the Post Office.

Prime real estate!

At first, it appeared something along the lines of a soup kitchen was being established to assist the indigent.

Then it grew into a small settlement.

Credit: ABC

Next we knew, politicians with little ’ps’ and big ‘Ps’, official and unofficial, left and right, were on the war path trading barbs about how it got there and when it was going.

Well, the dust is settling now the tents and their occupants have gone, and an assessment of exactly what happened and how – from the viewpoint of the City of Fremantle – is underway.

For the edification of our readers, here is the Report of the City’s CEO that will be formally presented to the Council at the Council meeting this Wednesday, 24 February 2021. We publish it verbatim, without editing and without comment. But we will welcome yours.

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Here’s the Report.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER REPORT ON CAMP AT PIONEER PARK
INTRODUCTION

This report is a summary of the events surrounding the establishment of the camp site known as “Tent City” on Pioneer Park from 26th December 2020 and early January 2021. It is prepared by the administration of the City of Fremantle (City), based on the written records and recollections of the relevant City staff. The report does not provide any comment about any discussions, meetings or purported comments by any Elected Members of the City of Fremantle, excepting in cases where these were meetings convened by and attended by City of Fremantle officers.

It also does not purport to represent the views and actions of the other third-party agencies involved, namely the WA Police, Dept of Communities and the registered local community support services.

REPORT
Initial meeting held on Monday 21st December 2020.

On December 21st a meeting was held at the City requesting the City’s support for a 24 hour outdoor food service called the ‘Boxing Day Feed’ with a community group calling itself Freo Street Kitchen (FSK). The meeting was attended by Manager Field Services, Manager Community Development, Manager Facilities and Environmental Management, Cr Rachel Pemberton and Mr Jessie Noakes, who represented FSK.

The proposed ‘Boxing Day Feed’ involved the service of food only and was proposed to run all day on 26th December, and for breakfast only on 27th December. No written proposal was put to the City, although a flyer for the provision of the ‘Boxing Day Feed’ was provided to the officers in attendance at the meeting (attachment 1) which confirmed the intent of the event. No camping on the park was raised, only that breakfast would be provided on the morning of the 27th December was discussed at this meeting.

No written or verbal approval was provided for the ‘Boxing Day Feed’ at the meeting, however officers indicated the City would offer limited support for the 24 hour event through the provision of water, power and waste collection. This decision was made on the basis that it was considered this proposal would provide a community service at a time when other service providers would be closed as it is the Christmas weekend, the provision of free food in the park appeared at that time to be a low risk activity and the City deals with similar requests from volunteer goodwill groups from time to time in a similar way. The free charitable provision of food to the public would not generally require a formal licence in the same way that a private food vendor does.

No more contact was made between representatives from FSK and the City until after the establishment of Tent City.

Awareness of Camping

City officers first became aware that the site was being used for camping on 27th December 2020, through its Community Safety Service. At this time the City operations were generally closed, except for a few services, due to the City being closed between the Christmas and New Year period.

During the period between 28th and 29th December 2020, relevant staff were advised of the developed situation and began communication of the situation. These were primarily between the Chief Executive Officer, Director City Business and Manager Field Services and between Manager of Field Services and the local police.

During this time the CEO had no contact with any elected members of the City, other than regular phone calls to the Mayor to inform him of the issue and of the actions being taken by the City.

An initial conversation was organised by the City between representatives of FSK, Community Safety Officers and Police on 29th December 2020, to resolve a departure date for the campers. The organisers did not commit to a departure date at this meeting.

City Meetings

An on-site meeting was held at the Park on Saturday 2nd January 2021. This meeting was attended by representatives of FSK, Police, representatives of the campers, Chief Executive Officer, Director City Business, Manager Field Services, Mayor Pettitt and Cr Pemberton. The representatives of the campers made a case for seeking housing at this meeting and no commitment was made to setting a departure date by the campers or FSK.

A follow-up internal City meeting was held on Sunday 3rd January 2021 attended by the Chief Executive Officer, Director City Business, Manager Field Services, Manager Community Development, Mayor Pettitt and Cr Pemberton. At this meeting it was agreed the City would establish an inter-agency meeting between City, state government and local registered social support groups to ensure that a co-ordinated response could be established to provide appropriate support to the campers and a compassionate approach and process to end the camping on the park. This meeting would be organised for the following day.

This meeting was convened on Monday 4th January, 2021, attended by City officers, Mayor Pettitt, representatives from WA Police, representatives from Department of Communities, representatives from St Patricks, representative for the Local Member of Parliament, representatives from Uniting WA and representatives from RUAH. The immediate decision of the group was that the camp needed to be closed as a matter of priority, but that the approach to that closure needed to recognise the vulnerability and complex needs of some of the occupants.

Co-ordinated Response

This full group met several times over the following 2 weeks (Friday 8th, Wednesday 13th, Friday 15th, and Friday 22nd January 2021) and worked on several issues during this time, namely:
• The undertaking of a survey of the camp to ascertain the origins and individual needs of the occupants,
• Developing a process to close the camp, whilst working with the various agencies to ensure that suitable support might be available for the occupants at the time of closure.
• Checking of legal and procedural options and issues around the closure process. During this time the City, with the support of WA Police, continued to monitor and contain the site.

This group agreed on a process to have the campers properly supported and removed and the camp closed. Initially the closure was agreed to be undertaken by 8th February 2021, this was subsequently revised to 23rd January 2021, as it was agreed that pre- planning arrangements had been adequately concluded.

City Support

During the time that the camp was operating, the CEO decided that basic services, in terms of toilet cleaning and waste removal would continue to be supported to ensure basic sanitary requirements were maintained. These services were simply provided to ensure the most basic level of amenity for the occupants on a humanitarian basis, and to ensure that any potential odours from the site (during a hot summer period) would be minimised.

Camp Closure

By the week beginning 18th January, it was clear to all the agencies involved that appropriate levels of support were available to enable the camp to be closed. The detailed process for closure was finalised during this week and a consensus decision was made to effect closure on 23rd January 2021. This process was developed by agreement between all parties involved in the co-ordinated response group, and intensive effort was made by the Department of Communities and the various local registered support agencies to ensure that appropriate support would be made available to the occupants of the camp.

As soon as the camp was closed the City co-ordinated the clean-up of the site and started the process of rehabilitating the park.

COMMENTS
Future review of process

The camp was clearly a regrettable event. It was not of any long term benefit to the vulnerable people camping, presented a poor public image of the City, had a negative impact on a number of adjacent businesses and users of the City, caused a considerable diversion of City resources from other normal workload, and incurred unplanned costs in terms of additional rostering of security staff, toilet cleaning and waste removal, and rehabilitation of the park.

The CEO will be conducting a review of the process of voluntary goodwill group approvals to ascertain whether changes to process need to be made to avoid a situation like this ever occurring again. Without wanting to pre-empt this review the difficultly will arise in that on the one hand the need for greater formality could readily be included in approval process, but thus will have to be weighed up against the benefit to the broader community of an easy, responsive and low cost community support approval process that enable the occurrence of many beneficial community support services with low levels of formality.

The role of City staff in the provision of support

The event was never approved by the City, although three City officers were informed of the intended provision of the ‘Boxing Day Feed’ over a 24 hour period and agreed that limited support could be provided for this. The City staff involved are all of appropriate Manager level to make such a judgment, and the CEO is satisfied that these staff involved acted lawfully, reasonably and within their proper authority.

Compliance issues once the camp was established

The decisions about compliance immediately following the establishment of this camp were probably the most challenging for officers to deal with.

It was clear to the City that this matter could not be treated simply as a case of illegal camping, whereby campers might simply be asked to remove their tents and leave the site and / or issued with infringements. There were many people involved, many of whom appeared to be homeless and with significant social and health support needs (at that stage no survey of the camp had been undertaken so assumptions had to made about the people occupying the camp). It was also clear that some aspects of the camp represented a political protest, and that the occupiers and organisers of the site were not prepared to leave voluntarily, and that any forcible removal of the campers from the site would have required significant Police support.

In consultation with the WA Police, the CEO decided that compliance action in respect of the camp could not simply be a matter of law enforcement alone, but that this should reflect the complexity of the situation and the vulnerability of some of the occupants of the camp. For these reasons it was decided to liaise with the Department of Communities and the local registered community support agencies to determine how the camp could be closed in a compassionate manner that provided some degree of support to the vulnerable occupants.
It is recognised and acknowledged, however, that the decision to take this approach to compliance, whilst ultimately being one that was more compassionate to the needs of the occupiers, did mean that reaching a conclusion to the camp could not be undertaken immediately and any negative impacts being experienced by the broader community would take longer to be resolved.

Ultimately it can only be speculated how the camp might have been closed earlier without having the appropriate support in place, but it is likely that this would have involved forcible eviction, possible large scale arrests and the camp occupants being dispersed around Fremantle or arrested. The camp was brought to an end within 29 days from its commencement, it can be noted that other camps located in the metropolitan area have taken far longer to resolve.

Cooperation with the agencies

All through this process, the City has worked in close cooperation and in consultation with the WA Police, the Department of Communities, St Patricks Community Care, Uniting WA, and RUAH. At no time did any officer of the City attempt to direct any of the other agencies involved, and neither did any of the agencies attempt to direct the City. Perhaps one of the few gratifying aspects of this issue was the excellent cooperation, working to common goals, and working relationships that developed between the agencies through this process, and approach which contributed to the eventual harmonious and compassionate closure of the camp.

NEXT STEPS

1. A further review will be undertaken by the Chief Executive Officer on the process of approval for voluntary goodwill groups seeking to undertake an activity in Fremantle; and
2. Any recommended changes in policy to support a change in process and/or compliance in dealing with matters associated with voluntary goodwill groups will be brought to council for consideration

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