When I watched a video last week of a policeman cautioning a homeless man for ‘illegally’ sitting down, and stating “you can’t sit in the alleys, you can’t sit in the streets, you can’t sit on the sidewalks in Denver”, I shook my head and thought ‘only in America’ would there be a law this stupid.
However, shocking measures to deter the homeless in the UK have recently come to light, with metal studs being installed outside a block of flats in central London, to deter rough sleepers from occupying the doorway.
A woman who lives in the block told the Telegraph: “There was a homeless man asleep there about six weeks ago. Then about two weeks ago all of a sudden studs were put up outside. I presume it is to deter homeless people from sleeping there.”
Andrew Horton, 33, from Surrey, took the picture of the inch-long studs in as he walked to work on Wednesday. The photograph has since been widely shared on Twitter, provoking outrage.
Photographs of similar studs outside a Tesco in Regent Street have also been shared on Twitter.
David Wells tweeted: “These anti-homeless studs are like the spikes they use to keep pigeons off buildings. The destitute now considered vermin.”
However, whilst these studs appear to be a new phenomenon and have sparked debate, homelessness charities suggest that metal studs have been used to deter rough sleepers for more than a decade.
Other types of so called ‘defensive architecture’ include the use of narrow, slanted bus shelter seats which can barely be sat on comfortably, let alone slept on, as well as park benches with arm rests to prevent reclining. It seems the use of metal studs is just another prevention method added to the existing anti-homeless measures which have crept in over the years – albeit a far more inhumane structure than the rest.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy and campaigns at Crisis, said: “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.”
“The reason for that increase is the continuing economic downturn, the housing shortage, and cuts to benefits, particularly housing benefit.”
It seems as though like the USA, the UK’s solution to homelessness is to criminalise it and keep it out of sight, out of mind.
In contrast to previous comments from residents of the London flats, one resident commented on the metal studs stating: “I think it’s a good idea,” 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.”
Katherine Sacks-Jones also stated: “Behind these numbers are real people struggling with a lack of housing, cuts to benefits and cuts to homelessness services to help them rebuild their lives. They might have suffered a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or domestic abuse. They deserve better than to be moved on to the next doorway along the street. We will never tackle rough sleeping with studs in the pavement. Instead we must deal with the causes.”
A spokeswoman for Southwark council said it would look into any official complaints but that there was little it could do unless the studs were in breach of planning regulations.
Councillor Peter John, leader of the council, said: “Southwark council is aware of concerns raised regarding the installation of spikes outside a privately owned building on Southwark Bridge Road to prevent rough sleeping.
“The council can look into health and safety or planning concerns that are reported to us. With regards to people sleeping rough the council has a dedicated officer who works closely with organisations like St Mungo’s [a homelessness charity], who have a ‘no second night out’ policy to ensure rough sleepers are found shelter and support.”
However, people that have actually experienced homelessness tell a very different story. Guardian columnist Alex Andreou speaks of his experience: “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.”
“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.”
As Alex, among many others suggests, these metal studs add to the dehumanisation of homelessness, further fuelling the notion that real poverty doesn’t exist by keeping people off the streets – not by giving them shelter, but by banning their presence in public as to not scare or offend the rest of society.
Thankfully, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has also seen sense (or at least cares enough about his public image to pretend to care for the homeless), and has called for the metal studs to be removed.
Johnson tweeted: “Spikes outside Southwark housing development to deter rough sleeping are ugly, self defeating & stupid. Developer should remove them ASAP.”
Lets hope the Mayor of London does a little more than ‘tweeting’ to ensure these inhumane measures are removed, and begins to focus on the causes of homelessness as a widespread problem, which is getting worse with government cuts.
This may be a time when a little people power is required, or at least this was the thinking behind Harriet Wells, who created a petition to remove the anti-homeless spikes. To sign the petition, please click here, and join the 16,000 that have already signed over this weekend alone.
Image from Jamie Lorriman