Or: Did you mean I want you to freeze because you are poor?
I’ve been traveling for my advocacy work this past week. I’ve been to Harrisburg, PA and went on to Washington, DC via Philly, looking out train windows at the bridges, tunnels, and other structures that may or may not be left over from a time when rails were more powerful. As I’ve done every trip I’ve taken since I was 21 (and sometimes before that), I would look for the nooks and crannies that are just shielded enough, just out of the way enough, to park a weary body. When the train moved on to the swamps and waterways along the border between Delaware and Maryland, I checked Twitter.
Idea: roll-out mattresses that somehow fit perfectly atop “anti-homeless” spikes
— unw♀man (@unwoman) June 7, 2014
I favorited and nodded vaguely, not really paying attention to what the context was. It simply seemed like a good idea. I’ve been homeless before, more than once, the longest stretch being two years where I bounced around couches, abandoned residences, and hotel rooms. Once you have to ask yourself nightly if you know where you are sleeping that night, and if you have enough layers with you to cope with there being no heating that night, it sticks with you. Often I don’t even realize that I’m doing something strange as I scan overpasses for shelter and train tunnels for service niches. It’s just something that is a part of my metaphorical operating system at this point. I got to DC and into the dorm building that the event I’m in town for is in. After setting up, I went to check Facebook in my usual must-stay-up-to-date-on-colleagues routine. One of those colleagues, a policy and media wonk from DC, posted this photo and suddenly I realized what Unwoman’s earlier tweet was:
It turns out that this particular image is actually from China in 2012. I encourage you to read the whole article— it talks a little bit about China’s own homelessness problem— but the key points are that in Guangzhou these 20cm tall deterrent spikes started showing up. The Chinese blogosphere took the city to task, and Google has some images of human-sized spaces broken into deterrent spikes suggesting that someone decided to act on their outrage. (The artist Ou Zhihang also posed naked over them as protest art (slightly NSFW) which, while less useful, made for more interesting Googling.) Some have pointed out that they also have a use of preventing cars from using the space as a turning lane, but even if it was the official reason it seems to have gained little traction.
But here’s the thing— there are more recent examples. The ones stirring people up right now are actually smaller, pointier, and in smaller spaces. In the Southwark area where one-bedroom apartments cost around £500,000 (about $840,550 USD) one building has installed them in the entrances to the building, this time explicitly to deter homeless people from taking shelter there.
Anti homeless floor studs. So much for community spirit :( pic.twitter.com/Yz8VF7Ryid
— Ethical Pioneer (@ethicalpioneer) June 6, 2014
The motivation was confirmed by a number of residents, most of whom seem unsettled that this was management’s solution to the growing homeless population. Rough sleeping, the behavior being targeted, refers to sleeping on the streets and out of doors, as opposed to other method of surviving while homeless like car-living, shelter hopping, or couch surfing, and is one of the more dangerous options. But with the limited number of beds, broken connections with communities, and simple lack of resources, it’s often the only viable option the person using it has.
And these aren’t the only examples; on Tumblr, there are posts going around showing a wide variety of different places and types of anti-homeless spikes. Of particular note are benches being designed so that they can’t be laid out upon by installing bars far enough to sit between, but too close to sleep on. In 2008, artist Fabian Brunsing created a bench that has retractable upon payment anti-homeless spikes. While Brunsing’s work is just art, it’s certainly something that feels, within this context, realistic in a kind of terrifying way — and that makes it that much more impactful.
Already having generated a petition, this move has gotten people to think a little bit about what it means when people and places try to get rid of the visible signs of class inequality. That this effectively treats them similarly to pigeons and other vermin is something that has not been lost to those having these discussions on social media, either.
This is happening in a context where rough sleeping has gone up massively. Over the last three years rough sleeping has risen by 36% nationally and by 75% in London. More than 6,400 people slept rough in London last year. – Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy and campaigns at Crisis
In a country whose public opinion of people on benefits has become quite hostile and has faced significant cuts to things from disability services to housing supports the numbers make a sort of horrible sense once you hear them.
I’ve been housed for more than two years now, and yet this “deterrent” still both angers and terrifies me. Even knowing I have a place to go home to, the thought that prime spots out of the direct chill of the wind could dwindle makes me worry. While I’d like to say I’m worried for those still homeless, the reality is that the creeping feeling on my back right now is nothing to do with altruism, and everything to do with having survived.