The Sunday Edition

The war between hostile architecture and homelessness - Michael's essay

“Take the lowly park bench. Most now come equipped with a useless third armrest in the middle. Its only purpose is to make sure a homeless person doesn't lie down to sleep. Defenders of this kind of architecture say it is designed to cut down on crime. In fact, these designs are directly targeted at the poor and the homeless.”
It's difficult to lie down on a park bench when there's a third armrest in the middle. This "defensive design" element is part of a controversial strategy to prevent loitering, crime and other issues. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)
Listen4:25

It is called hostile architecture, and it is spreading like kudzu in cities from Moncton to Montevideo.

A more euphemistic term is defensive architecture.

It can take many forms, but basically, it is an anti-personnel device.

In New York, a grassroots movement has sprung up against hostile architecture; activists roam the city taking pictures of offending structures.

In Bournemouth, England, an artist sent out more than 5,000 stickers to people around the world in lively protest.

Hostile architecture can be a park bench designed so that no one can stretch out or, God forbid, sleep on it. Or studs on concrete so people can't sit down. Or planters strategically placed so people won't loiter outside retail shops or restaurants.

Take the lowly park bench. Most now come equipped with a useless third arm rest in the middle. Its only purpose is to make sure a homeless person doesn't lie down to sleep.

Defenders of this kind of architecture say it is designed to cut down on crime. In fact, these designs are directly targeted at the poor and the homeless.

In my hometown, Toronto, it is virtually a criminal offence to be poor. We used to have a plethora of laws against panhandling and loitering.

In my hometown, Toronto, it is virtually a criminal offence to be poor. We used to have a plethora of laws against panhandling and loitering.- Michael Enright

Eventually, the cops got tired of issuing tickets for fines they knew the homeless could never pay.

So in the richest city in the country, the homeless stretch out on the sidewalks, and we step over them or around them.

The city, like many others in Canada, is going through a housing crisis. Single family housing is beyond the reach of most people, especially the young.

Rents are rising faster than wages. They are rapidly becoming exorbitant. Young couples hoping to start a family, postpone and postpone until they can find an affordable place to live.

Think, then, how a person without an income, without skills, perhaps with mental illness, without a permanent address, is supposed to live.

The public shelters are operating at above capacity. Which is why you see people sleeping in doorways and over steam grates.

Winter is here early and in force, and if recent history is any guide, it will bring with it several deaths of homeless men and women.

Winter is here early and in force, and if recent history is any guide, it will bring with it several deaths of homeless men and women.- Michael Enright

There will be one or two memorials, perhaps a short profile of the victim, and things will go back to normal — normal being no place for them to find shelter.

There a temporary solution — tents. For example, someone has erected a tent outside the law courts on the city's widest thoroughfare.

The occupant flies a Canadian flag from its small window. I've seen three or four other single-person tents along some of the city's busiest shopping avenues.

Here's a suggestion. Why doesn't the city provide a warm coat and a tent to anyone who asks for it?

Antediluvians will argue that it is a disgrace to allow people in tents to crowd a public thoroughfare.

But people are more important than property.

And I'm not talking about full-blown tent cities under an overpass. Our empty golf courses could be venues for a half dozen tents. The same with large parks.

Until our major city governments can come up with a way to provide safe winter housing for the homeless, they will have to improvise.

Any minute now, we are going to be subjected to a hallelujah chorus of whingeing about the war on Christmas. It has become as regular and familiar as the Queen's message, though perhaps a little more strident.

There is no war on Christmas, never has been.

But there does seem to be a cold war on the homeless and the street people.

A war that none of us can afford to lose.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. 

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