Only support service for Blue Mountains Indigenous community threatened with closure after NSW government warns of eviction
The only support service for indigenous people in the Blue Mountains faces an uncertain future after learning they were being evicted from their premises by the New South Wales government.
The Indigenous Cultural and Resource Center has been operating for nearly 30 years in a cottage on the site of a former facility for children of the Stolen Generations and mentally disabled in Katoomba.
Now staff have been told the building failed to comply with accessibility and bushfire safety regulations and the NSW government is unwilling to pay the millions what it would cost for upgrades.
This means the service will have to find new premises and staff fear they will not be able to pay commercial rents, and the service, which provides vital support to the community, will have to close.
“The government has goals of ‘closing the gap’ it wants to achieve and the closure of Indigenous organizations is widening that gap,” said Indigenous and Cultural Resource Center Board Chair Bernadette O’Bryan. .
“I don’t understand how they can say one thing and do the opposite.”
Currently under an agreement with the state government, the community organization pays no rent.
Dharawal elder Uncle Edward Walker said the service provided vital support when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“[They] picked me up at my front door and took me to the hospital [to have radiotherapy] for eight weeks,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how we would have survived.”
Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill accused the government of exaggerating the problems so they could sell the land.
“This is a political decision to dislodge an important community building to earn a few dollars with no compassion or concern for the community organizations there,” he said.
“The thought that they might be left homeless by what I believe to be a heartless act is appalling to me.”
Cr Greenhill claimed the government had neglected the site for years and left it to decay.
“Now conveniently he wants to use his own negligence to kick important community service organizations off this site,” he said.
Local estate agents estimate the sale of the 2.4-acre site could bring the government up to $2 million.
The NSW Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) said it was working closely with the community group to find alternative premises.
“DCJ remains committed to working collaboratively with the Blue Mountains Aboriginal Cultural Resource Center to assist them in their goal of providing services to their local community,” a spokesperson said.
The Blue Mountains Aboriginal Culture and Resource Center receives around $300,000 a year in funding from the NSW government.
Three other community groups are also at risk of eviction, including Gateway Family Services, which provides counseling, support groups and emergency food services.
“I think it’s disappointing that they showed up and said, ‘You and your friends, this is too hard, stop what you’re doing and get out,'” general manager Gregory Lazarus said.
“The government expects us to vacate the premises and properties will invariably be sold.”
Mr Lazarus said it would be difficult to find an affordable alternative property in the Blue Mountains.
The DCJ’s real estate portfolio grew by $509 million over the past fiscal year, according to its 2021 annual report, to a value of $7.6 billion.
The disability nonprofit Leura Day Options, which receives about $900,000 a year in state government funding, and the Blue Mountains Wildplant Rescue Services are also being kicked out.
The state government says repairing the 50-year-old buildings and upgrading the site would cost $2.4 million.
“The property…has significant accessibility and bushfire safety non-compliance issues that cannot be addressed within the property’s existing zoning,” a spokesperson said.
The Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, who is responsible for zoning, disputed this.
“It’s a pile of garbage,” said Cr Greenhill.
“If the state government had these concerns, where is the letter addressed to me?
“We will change the zoning if necessary.”
Uncle Kerry Mckenzie was 10 years old when placed in the former Clairvaux Children’s Home which occupied the site.
It took him almost 50 years to be ready to go back, as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They were ridiculously cruel. I couldn’t understand why they did what they did,” he said.
But in recent years, he has found refuge at the Indigenous Cultural and Resource Center.
“You can always go to the place and have a cup of tea and sit down and do some yarn.”