Earlier this month, someone tweeted a picture of a series of metal spikes built into the ground outside a London apartment building.
The spikes were intended to discourage homeless people from sleeping in the area, and their presence sparked a public outcry. London’s mayor called the spikes “ugly, self defeating & stupid,” and the mayor of Montreal called similar spikes in his own city “unacceptable!!!!” Protesters poured concrete over a set of spikes outside of a Tesco supermarket. Then, after a petition was signed by nearly 130,000 people, the spikes were removed from the London apartment building, the Tesco, and downtown Montreal.
It has been encouraging to see the outrage over the London spikes. But the spikes that caused the uproar are by no means the only form of homeless-deterrent technology; they are simply the most conspicuous. Will public concern over the spikes extend to other less obvious instances of anti-homeless design? Perhaps the first step lies in recognizing the political character of the devices all around us.
An example of an everyday technology that’s used to forbid certain activities is “skateboard deterrents,” that is, those little studs added to handrails and ledges. These devices, sometimes also called “skatestoppers” or “pig ears,” prevent skateboarders from performing sliding—or “grinding”—tricks across horizontal edges. A small skateboard deterrence industry has developed, with vendors with names like “stopagrind.com” and “grindtoahault.com.” But in an echo of the protesters vandalizing the anti-homeless spikes, skateboarders find ways to combat or adapt to these measures. For example, there’s an abundance of YouTube videos in which tools are used to pop off the studs, one by one. The deterrent vendors respond with more tamper resistant alternatives. And so on.
The point is that it’s easy to imagine a non-skateboarder walking by skateboard deterrents every day and taking no notice of them at all, remaining entirely unaware of the social role of these devices. Such a person would be oblivious to the power relations at work in their surrounding environment. These dynamics are especially important in the case of homelessness.
An example of a pervasive homeless deterrence technology is benches designed to discourage sleeping. These include benches with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests between seats, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying, among many other designs. There are even benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long. Sadly, such designs are particularly common in subway, bus stops, and parks that present the homeless with the prospect of a safely public place to sleep.
When thinking about this landscape of homeless deterrence technologies like the benches and still-ubiquitous spikes, it is important to consider the role of laws against loitering. For many cities, loitering laws have the effect of enabling law enforcement to arrest the homeless simply for being around. Such regulations target things like sleeping in public, panhandling, or even outdoor charity food service. This further complicates the relation of the homeless to this public landscape. Why do you think the homeless so often choose bus stops in particular as a place to sleep? One reason is surely that it affords a kind of plausible deniability: I was just waiting for the bus.
And like the non-skateboarder that walks unknowingly by the skateboard deterrents each day, it’s easy to be someone moving through our world without seeing these power plays, enacted through design and policy, keeping the predicament of the homeless conveniently out of view. The problem remains, but it’s rendered invisible.
Homelessness is of course a persistent and pervasive problem, and of course solutions are neither simple nor easy. But on the issue of the design and policy of public spaces, it is important to keep a view of what values guide our decision making, and what alternative values may also warrant consideration. Returning to the example of skateboarding, a surprising challenge to standard assumptions comes in cases like the Oslo Opera House and Germany’s Phaeno Science Center. These buildings were constructed with skateboarding in mind, and designed with the consultation of skateboarders. Designs of this sort make it seem at least possible to strongly reconsider our basic assumptions about how to build our shared spaces. Maybe we can imagine other approaches to the problem of homelessness that do not include deterring the homeless from being seen.
The London spikes provide an opportunity to put a finger on our own intuitions about issues of homelessness and the design of open space. Ask yourself if you were appalled by the idea of the anti-homeless spikes. If so, then by implication you should have the same problems with other less obvious homeless deterrence designs like the sleep-prevention benches and the anti-loitering policies that target homeless people. This question applies as well to the mayors of London and Montreal. Considering the outrage they’ve expressed over the anti-homeless spikes, I am curious to see if their concerns also extend to the further anti-homeless designs and policies that mark their cities.