Anti homeless floor studs. So much for community spirit :( pic.twitter.com/Yz8VF7Ryid— Ethical Pioneer (@ethicalpioneer) June 6, 2014
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.