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Sydney homeless 'tent city' packs up after new law

[SYDNEY] A homeless tent city in the heart of Sydney was being dismantled Friday, after political wrangling over who was responsible for the plight of those sleeping rough in winter sparked the introduction of new laws.

More than 50 people had been camping in colourful tents erected amid the high-end office buildings and glitzy stores of Martin Place, just metres from Australia's central bank and the New South Wales state parliament.

The camp became the most visible symbol of the lack of low-cost accommodation in Sydney, Australia's largest city, which is ranked second on a list of the world's least affordable housing.

The City of Sydney council and the NSW government have blamed each other for failing to take responsibility for the camp, with the state's premier Gladys Berejiklian eventually pushing through a new law Wednesday allowing police to remove the tent dwellers.

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The law came into effect Friday, and Lanz Priestley, who has been dubbed the tent city's mayor, told AFP the camp was being peacefully dismantled after residents were asked by police to pack up.

Ms Berejiklian refuted criticism the new legislation could be used to break-up other protests in the city, adding that it was specifically targeted at "unauthorised activity" such as the makeshift campsite.

"What is happening in Martin Place is beyond protest because it's unauthorised activity which is compromising the public safety of those most vulnerable but also the safety of the community," she told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week.

The group of dwellers have camped out in Martin Place since the end of last year beside a building site, but more recently pitched the tents after the area was closed for construction.

State officials said they have visited the site 47 times since March, placing some 230 people sleeping rough in Martin Place in temporary accommodation.

Volunteer Belinda Percy, who has been helping out in a makeshift kitchen beside the camp that offers free food and hot drinks, said the residents would continue to get help.

"Everyone will be supported. Nobody's going to left on their own. For the people who haven't secured housing at this point of time, we will be looking after them," Ms Percy told AFP.

Social advocates warn Sydney's high prices are placing more pressure on those struggling to afford a roof over their heads.

More than 100,000 people across Australia were reported homeless in the 2011 national census, with welfare groups expecting the most recent survey held last year to show an increase.

"I think the reason why we've been in this situation is there's been a lack of investment in social housing," Homelessness NSW chief Katherine McKernan told AFP Thursday.

"And there's no policy decision-making... around ensuring that private rentals are affordable and that the housing market more generally is affordable."