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Rats plague vulnerable elderly of Millers Point, UN told

Date

Tim Barlass

Troubled waters: The former Sydney Ports Harbour Control Tower at Millers Point.

Troubled waters: The former Sydney Ports Harbour Control Tower at Millers Point. Photo: David Porter

Hordes of rats up are "moving up the hill" as wharves are knocked down at Barangaroo and 600 public housing tenants are "forcibly displaced", a United Nations aged care conference has been told in New York.

The rats are relocating to Millers Point, where bubonic plague broke out in 1902, and residents say they are using towels to barricade their bedrooms to keep them out.

It wasn't exactly the image Australia was trying to present to the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing beamed worldwide on the UN's own television network.

Forcibly displaced tenants: Millers Point community members gather to discuss the government's plan to evict them.

Forcibly displaced tenants: Millers Point community members gather to discuss the government's plan to evict them. Photo: Ella Rubeli

Earlier in the session, First Secretary (Human Rights), Australian Mission, Tanisha Hewanpola told delegates that Australia was committed to promoting and protecting the rights of older persons.

"Nationally Australia has introduced a range of policies and other initiatives aimed at strengthening the protection of older persons," she said.

But Sydney lawyer Kim Boettcher, from the Aged-care Rights Service, didn't seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet when she stood up to address the session on Thursday afternoon.

She told delegates of "a storm brewing on the edge of Sydney Harbour which epitomises the problem we face with no international legal instrument for older people in place".

Over the past year residents had been door knocked and interviewed by the authorities with no legal representation, no attorney, no guardian or even a support person in the room, telephoned, texted and inundated with letters about moving out, Ms Boettcher said.

"As the wharves are being knocked down for the casino to be built, hordes of rats are moving up the hill and to the area where these people live.  Nothing is being done about the rats." she said.

"It is clear that we need infrastructure, businesses and healthy national economies but not by breaching the human rights of older people.

"The residents are being asked to sign consent forms over a cup of tea and an informal chat, which would result in the handing over of all of their most personal medical, legal and family information ...   It is left to attorneys and advocates to raise the alarm.  

"It so easy to move people on once you know all about them and you can find an excuse to put them in an aged care home, under the care of the state guardian, in a mental health facility ... but which isolates from their lifelong friends and community.  

"One of the elderly residents told me last week that to relocate them away from their community, is 'one step short of putting you up against a wall and shooting you because it’s saying you are of no value to society.  You are worthless.' ” she said. 

Lawyer Edwina Lloyd, who has been selected as the ALP candidate for Sydney, has also stepped in to defend the residents.

Ms Lloyd said the UN speech meant the Baird government’s disrespectful treatment of older people was now on the international agenda and that the performance of Community Services Minister Gabrielle Upton had become a global embarrassment.

"If the sale of Millers Point residences continues, it will damage the state’s reputation as a modern, progressive and caring society that takes the rights of older people seriously," she said.

"At the very least, Minister Upton should front up and talk to the people she is displacing.  They have written to her, called her and even gone to her office, but she will not even pay the tenants the basic courtesy of speaking to them.

"The Baird government has underestimated the resilience and determination of the Millers Point community.  They don't intend on going anywhere.

"But Mike Baird can step in right now, fix the mess and the stop the sales.  He can stop pressuring tenants to leave their homes, and start supporting this beautiful but vulnerable community."

Opposition spokeswoman for housing and local government Sophie Cotsis said the government had no plans for the area or for new housing.

"Where are the proceeds going? There is no allocation in the budget," she said.

"If any of the money was to go back into the public housing system that would be in the 2014/15 budget and I can't find a reference to the proposed sale. My concern is this is just going to be a massive fire sale and the taxpayers of NSW will lose.

"Which other properties are the government going to sell around the city? Will they be selling places at Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Redfern and Waterloo?

"Housing will be an election issue. This government is selling off more public housing properties than they have built. They have halved the housing budget and they are not serious about building public housing if they were they would have had a proper strategic plan. The auditor general made a recommendation last year in July to the government to release a social housing policy and we are still waiting for it."

A statement from the Department of Family and Community Services said rats were a perennial problem for the inner city and that the department has not received any reports of increased rodent activity in Millers Point.

It stated the IPad offer was not linked to the Millers Point project and was part of an incentive offered to public housing tenants across NSW to take part in a customer survey about internet and smartphone usage.

Of the minister's involvement it said an independent project facilitator, Lynelle Briggs, had been appointed by the NSW Government to manage the Millers Point project.

It stated: 'All proceeds from the sales will be reinvested in the social housing system as required under the Housing Act 2001.This will be in addition to Government’s current budgeted program for new supply of social housing in 2013/14, which  includes commencing 276 new builds and forecasts completing 379 in that period.'

It said the Millers Point properties were increasingly unsuitable for public housing, with many of the older premises presenting problems for tenants with mobility issues and that they were isolated from local amenities.

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