Alex Andreou - For more than a decade “defensive architecture” has increasingly been creeping into urban life. From narrow, slanted bus shelter seats - not even suitable for sitting on, let alone sleeping on - to park benches with peculiar armrests designed to make it impossible to recline; from angular metal studs on central London ledges to surreal forests of pyramid bollards under bridges and flyovers. Hard property jutting out against soft homeless bodies, saying: how dare you be poor in plain sight?
Artist Sarah Ross attempted to highlight this trend, tongue-in-cheek, by creating “archisuits”: padded jumpsuits that allowed the wearer to wrap around this unforgiving environment. Sculptor Fabian Bransing aimed to satirise this aspect of modern urban life, creating the “pay bench” which retracts its metal spikes when the prospective sitter feeds it a coin - but only for a limited time. Modern life has a way of piling irony on top of sarcasm. The Chinese government saw the project, thought it was a great idea and installed the benches in Yantai Park of the Shangdong province.
Step by selfish step we have arrived at the latest item causing outrage: a bed of metal spikes inside an alcove of a fancy new development on Southwark Bridge Road in London. “I think it’s a good idea,” one resident said. Speaking of “beggars and homeless people sleeping there”, she added: “It completely affects the way the building seems, the appearance, and it’s just not very nice.” An Englishman’s home is his castle, and that castle now includes a moat to keep the peasants out.
These “anti-homeless” measures are designed to move the destitute on to somewhere else. I lived on Southwark Bridge Road before every patch of it was developed into posh apartments - a small, one-bedroom flat will now set you back £500,000. The area’s rough-sleeping population was a direct result of another “crackdown on homelessness” in nearby Waterloo.
At the root of this cruelty, which treats the dispossessed like a pigeon infestation - fed crumbs by the kindly misguided, shooed away by the thoughtlessly indifferent and spiked by the inhumanly practical - are wilful misconceptions about homelessness: that it is a lifestyle choice, which oddly becomes more popular during periods of nationwide economic ruin; that poverty is down to personal failure; that kindness perpetuates it; and, more than any misconception, that good shelter is readily available.
Before I became homeless myself, nothing could have prepared me for the shock of finding out that there are very few shelters which offer temporary refuge for the night for free. In order to get it, I had to be referred by a local agency. In order to be referred by a local agency I needed to demonstrate to a council a “sufficient local connection”. Proving a sufficient local connection for the majority of homeless people, who commonly become itinerant before they become dispossessed, is much harder than it sounds. Asking someone sleeping rough to provide bills showing a local address is about as realistic as asking them to provide proof that unicorns exist.
I remember walking into the nearby housing office when I knew I was going to become homeless in four days’ time. I was a single, physically healthy male with no dependants. “You’re not homeless yet,” the office observed, “and you don’t have any bills from this address.” I had been staying with a friend whose kindness had finally reached an end; I had no bills in my name. I was advised to try the council where I had last paid bills regularly. More than six months had passed. My “sufficient local connection” had been severed. I was passed like a parcel from borough to borough, none of them wanting to help me because by doing so I would have become part of their statistics, affected their targets, and become their responsibility.
On one occasion I paid for shelter for the night. I didn’t do it lightly. It cost £14, a week’s food budget. As I lay awake in a room with another dozen desperate men, the smell of chlorine from my sheets barely masking the smell of sweat and alcohol, the whirring of the fan above my cot unable to compete with the coughing, wheezing and murmuring, it became clear why many choose a doorway, as I did from then on.
Still, none of this hardship compared to the psychological damage which goes with such territory. I felt increasingly invisible and inhuman, as if the real me was evaporating. There were many moments when I was acutely aware that I was on a knife edge; that if I lost even one more per cent of myself, I would never again be myself.
And this damaging dissociation of the destitute from the rest of the world, this dehumanising effect, is precisely the aspect that such offensive “defensive architecture” feeds. It makes the city hostile to those who exist in this parallel reality. It breaks their psyche down further, making recovery less likely. It consigns them further out of sight so that the rest may continue to pretend that real poverty doesn’t exist. It doesn’t just deny someone who has absolutely nothing, a place to rest; it is a sign which reads, “Not even this bit of earth. Not even for the night.”–Guardian