A campaign against homeless people is being waged in Britain’s cities, according to a new survey that claims “street cleansing” tactics are being employed by planners, businesses and security companies to stop people resting or sleeping outdoors.
Interviewed by the national homelessness charity Crisis, rough sleepers reported being hosed with water by security guards to make them move on, and an increase in the use of other “deterrent” measures.
More than 450 people were surveyed in homelessness services across England and Wales. Six in 10 reported an increase over the past year in “defensive architecture” to keep homeless people away, making sitting or lying down impossible – including spikes and railings, curved or segregated benches and gated doorways. Others said they had experienced deliberate noise pollution, such as loud music or recorded birdsong and traffic sounds, making it hard or impossible to sleep. Almost two-thirds of respondents said there had been an increase in the number of wardens and security guards in public spaces, who were regularly moving people on in the middle of the night, sometimes by washing down spaces where people were attempting to rest or sleep. Others reported noise being played over loudspeakers in tunnels and outside buildings.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said he had been shocked by the findings. “It’s dehumanising people,” he said. “If people have chosen the safest, driest spot they can find, your moving them along is making life more dangerous.
“If it’s somewhere you live or run a business, I understand you want the immediate environs to be nice. If we’re talking about antisocial behaviour, you don’t want that in your doorway. But don’t make the homeless the victims. The planners have a responsibility to plan in a way that’s not hurting people.
“The rise of hostile measures is a sad indictment of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. Having to sleep rough is devastating enough, and we need to acknowledge that homelessness is rising and work together to end it. We should be helping people off the streets to rebuild their lives – not just hurting them or throwing water on them.”
Working for Crisis, photographer Jeff Hubbard captured dozens of images of anti-homeless measures throughout London. He spent time sleeping rough himself in 2007. “Bus stops were my big bugbear back then – the seats had been taken away and there was just a perch. You suddenly realised the city had its defence mechanisms against you. It was tough.
“Now, just strolling around I saw it everywhere. This is insidious, and if we are complacent about it it will become the norm. Not just spikes, but park benches absolutely not designed so you can lie down. Now you can’t even lie under them, as they have little bars. They’re deliberately designed against people with nowhere else to go.”
Andrew, 44, who has been homeless for 15 years, and is currently in an Emmaus programme, said the impact of “hostile” design was demoralising. “Sometimes it’s subtle – you think its just part of the architecture,” he said. “Then you realise it was planned into the building, and it’s aimed at you.
“The hosedowns often will happen late at night – they know you’ll shift to get dry. People sleep in different places for different reasons. I like to be tucked away because I know a guy who had his head split open while he was asleep by a pair of affluent guys who just wanted to beat up a homeless person. It’s not good. But then if you’re tucked away, you don’t get anyone dropping money.
“Putting out spikes and things is mean-minded. In history that’s going to look bad, when people look back and see we did these things to homeless people.”
Iain Borde, professor of architecture and urban culture at University College London, said the anti-homeless measures were part of a general shift in attitudes towards public space. “It has really intensified,” he said. “Public space is becoming a Lakeside or Bluewater mall where everything is homogenised and regulated down to the toilets being cleaned every 10 minutes. That’s fine for a shopping mall, but not for public space, especially when there are preventative measures in place to stop people sitting or lying down, or skateboarding.
“ A hostile environment to a homeless person is hostile to all of us if it’s trying to control what we can and cannot do. It’s not the architects doing this – it’s the planners and managers.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010