The unknown homeless man and the Mayor of Martin Place

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Lanz Priestley, the former Mayor of Martin Place (Image screenshot Daily Telegraph)

An ode to the "Mayor of Martin Place" and the Homeless Tent City and protest camp, by Chris Mordd Richards.

AS HE shuffled past the alleyway he'd slept in the past few nights, he carefully kept his head down and averted his gaze lest he scare any of the businessman still heading home late from the office. It had been a good while since he had showered last and even he had to admit, compared to when he worked in one of those tall towers in Sydney’s CBD, he did look fairly unkempt and maybe even scary now. He wondered for the umpteenth time what old him would think if he could go back and tell himself, that he would end up one of those men he used to look at with a mixture of disdain and pity, wrapped in a dose of self-righteousness.

He wasn’t sleeping in that alley again, although it had been fine for the first three nights, last night he woke up to three drunks pissing on him and laughing.

When he protested, one of them kicked him in the head and then they all spat on him repeatedly, yelling at him as they ran off to “get a fucking job you loser, what’s wrong with ya...”. Reaching up with his right hand as he shuffled along with his meagre possessions and piece of cardboard, he could feel the lump now well formed on the upper right side of his head. That one sure was going to be a good shiner, he thought. The insults weren’t anything he hadn’t heard before, or even had thought before himself in years past, as he had hurried to and from work himself.

No, it was the violence that shocked him the most when he became homeless and still did now — even after 27 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. He had forgiven the men already, his true Christian nature having finally emerged properly after he hit rock bottom and was presented with a rude awakening to some of the realities of life. However, he would not soon forget this latest encounter — just one of the many violent encounters he’d had since the streets became his home. It was only his faith that kept him going these days. He reached down to tap the small bible in his left pocket, The one the nice Mormon missionaries had given him one day, when they stopped to talk to him after he begged them for one.

His favourite passage these days, by far, was 2 Corinthians 6 : 3 – 5:

‘We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.’

Beatings, sleepless nights and hunger. He knew well about those these days, of course. Life on the streets of Sydney were tough for a former merchant banker — one who once had aspirations of entering politics, maybe even ending up as prime minister one day. Crazier people than him had, after all, he used to think in those days. How ridiculous his old fantasies seemed now. Homeless at 44, his kids had stopped talking to him not long after he ended up on the streets, now his best friends were other homeless men and rats — plenty of those around, especially during winter.

27 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days. He still counted them each day since the date the judge ruled his wife was being granted full custody of their three kids, the house, the car and almost everything else — or so it seemed to him at the time. He ended up depressed, and his job performance suffered. The firm he was at was very cut throat, at the top of the industry, and he had only been there for eighteen months at that point. He had mortgaged himself to the hilt in order to get the fancy new place in Rose Bay that his wife wanted to go along with the new job. He struggled to keep up with all the payments on the multiple bills they had always had, on top of the child support payments and the hotel apartment he was renting near the city. As well as all the cab rides he was taking since his wife had ended up with both of their cars — for reasons he couldn’t remember anymore, but were perfectly sound, his lawyer had assured him at the time.

The more the pressure mounted, the more depressed he got. Eventually after a few months, his firm let him go.

“It’s not you, it’s us, we just don’t feel that our culture suits you," they told him. He didn’t care enough to barely even register the backhanded insult by that point. From then on it was a fairly fast spiral down the hill of life to rock bottom. He shuttered himself completely in his hotel room, turned off his phone and spent most of the time in bed, barely able to function. It didn’t seem like all that much time at all had passed before the hotel manager knocked on his door to politely inform him his credit card had been cancelled and they had been required to destroy it. Apparently, almost four weeks had passed by that point, according to the manager. And, oh yes, about the credit card: “Sorry, did he have any others?”

He remembers when he handed over his remaining three cards, after fumbling around to find his wallet, how quickly the staffer appeared, the manager already had someone waiting by the door with a mobile EFTPOS machine it seemed. It took three quick, almost perfunctory swipes by the staffer to confirm that yes, all three of those cards had also been cancelled, and would also now be destroyed. “Bank’s orders,” they told him, apologetically. Who wasn’t so apologetic were the two security guards who then appeared, as the manager and staffer quickly made their exit, who informed him crisply he had approximately ten to fifteen minutes to pack his stuff and “depart the premises”, or the police would be called in regards to his outstanding bill.

After a few nights a-piece on the couches of a few friends of his still speaking to him after the divorce, their patience with his mental state at that point quickly grew thin as well, just like his former employers had and, the next thing he knew, he was sleeping on a park bench in the inner city. ‘How had it come to this?’ he thought those first few nights. He’d had it all: the job, the wife, the kids, the fancy house, two fancy cars, the expensive private school for the kids, the high society parties…

"Ah, what did any of it mean now anyway," he thought, snapping back to reality for a moment with an audible grumble, momentarily startling a woman passing nearby.

He tried not to think too much of his former life these days. It still hurt too much. The disconnect from his former life to now still had not worn off entirely. He preferred to remain focused on the rules of the street now. His old life seemed only around the corner in terms of time, but aeons away now in reality.

Besides, he thought, tonight I have a reason to be thinking more cheerfully, he sharply reminded himself. Tonight, he was heading to this new "tent city" his friend Joe had told him about today. According to old Joe, it was some kind of special safe place for homeless people, just started up a few weeks ago he said. He could sleep there and not get pissed on or bashed, Joe said. The people there would help keep him safe.

More than that, Joe had told him incredulously, they had a kitchen set up and there was free food, as well as blankets and maybe even a pillow, if he was lucky. He did wonder a bit when Joe told him that last whole part whether the old bastard had been on the grog again that morning  — but no, Joe had been sober. Still, he thought, Joe did tend to exaggerate a fair bit most of the time, so he wasn’t expecting much in reality. Even still, somewhere semi safe to sleep was too tempting to pass up the chance to check out, even if it meant he ended up wasting time he could have spent finding a new place to sleep tonight. Joe had referred to the so-called founder of this new "tent city" as "the Mayor of Martin Place”. This sounded a bit lofty to him, but who was he to judge. Maybe the man deserved the title.

“Just ask for Lanz,” Joe had said, “he’ll take care of you."

As he finally rounded the corner into Martin Place itself, he almost ran smack bang straight into a pole from what he saw opposite the Reserve Bank. What looked like a kitchen, with a sign saying 'FREE FOOD!', some shelter and a dozen or so tents nearby with other homeless people in them. One of the women in a blue tent he was pretty sure he knew, which explained why he hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks now. It took him a minute or so more before he was even able to move again, so wondrous was the sight before him.

Rubbing his eyes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, he approached the kitchen a bit nervously, still not sure if what he saw in front of him was real and not some kind of bizarre inner-city mirage. A lady came out and greeted him warmly. She asked him if he needed somewhere to sleep tonight and would he like some hot soup or something else to eat. All he could think to say was: “Lanz, he said ask for Lanz."

The woman smiled sweetly at him and said “Don’t worry, we got you now hun, why don’t you come sit down over here and have something to eat, you’re safe here." As he allowed himself to be led over to a seat nearby, he could feel a tear or two sliding silently down his face. This was the most kindness he had been shown in many months now. Was this homeless heaven?

Before he knew it, a bowl of hot soup and a hefty chuck of bread – fresh bread – were placed into his hands. He drew in the tantalizing smell wafting off the very healthy serving of soup and said a silent prayer to God for whoever this Lanz man was. He surely was the Mayor of Martin Place, he thought, as he tucked in to the first good meal he'd had all week.

Author's note: This is an ode to the now former Martin Place "Homeless Tent City" and protest camp, and the man who made it all possible, Lanz Priestly. Let he who is truly without sin, cast the first stone at Lanz – if you dare – lest God judge you for your sins as harshly as some seek to judge him for his. This piece is a work of fiction and, with the exception of Lanz, does not refer to any specific person, or specific person’s experience, homeless or otherwise. Lanz, although a real person, is used in a fictionalised manner for the purpose of this piece, based on a possible reality that could have occurred. Nonetheless, this is still just a work of fiction.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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The FACS pop up stall pictured above found housing for 70 people at the Homeless City. Lanz Priestley and his crew claim they found shelter for 220 people.

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