Let us just stop, before we fight the homeless people in our zest to fight homelessness

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Earlier this month, several Danish media published the story of a London building society installing spikes in the pavement in front of the company’s building in order to prevent homeless people from bunking down just there. Subsequently, it turned out that such similar anti-homeless spikes were also installed outside one of the city’s supermarkets. The spikes have stirred up indignation and debate on social and printed media both in London, where, because of the pressure the supermarket chose to remove the spikes in front of the entrance, and in Denmark where daily newspapers and their readers have flaunted their indignation. Protests are very much in order when witnessing that we treat a group of citizens as we would normally only treat pigeons on our roof. – Spikes, that’ll keep them away!

Are the incidents in London in reality that different from Danish conditions? As far as we know, nobody has gone to so obvious and openly degrading measures as to paving with homeless-rejecting spike-encrusted slabs. Looking at the urban development, however, these past few years we also find examples that the urban space is designed to keep the homeless people away from places where we would rather that they did not settle. It has become standard to shorten benches in train stations, rebuilding these into single seats with armrests, replacing these by racks that you can lean against or simply remove the benches. Backyards, stairways and abandoned buildings are increasingly locked, and homeless people experience that ”natural” resting places such as grids in front of buildings have been raised at one side so that it is no longer possible to lie down on them. Besides the benches, buildings and grids that are impassable, to the homeless people who are in need of rest, anyway, use of public toilets has become more expensive. Access costs five kroner in several places and in some toilets; you have to use a smartphone to pay. Cafés reserve toilets for eating/drinking guests, who have thus become entitled to a code for the door. The tendency is that you are justifying your stay in the public/semi-public domain through consumption or purchase.

The ordinary middle-class Dane on his way to or from work may not stop and think about these details (as most might do if spikes turned up in the pavement). Projekt UDENFOR’s staff observes increasingly many of these examples when moving about on the streets together with the people who feel the consequences of such initiatives in urban development. The anti-homeless-spikes on the other side of the North Sea offers an opportunity to look at the circumstances in Denmark and to stress that the vulnerable, the homeless people, those with ragged clothes and who drink more beer than the average, have just as much right to stay in the public domain as everybody else. Let us stop before we start fighting the homeless people in our zest for fighting homelessness – as seen in Hungary where homelessness is a crime in several places, and where living on the streets might lead to fines or imprisonment. In Denmark, we already have a ban against mendicancy and in wishing to remove beggars; we have removed the beggar’s last opportunity of a livelihood.

We are not fighting homelessness by making it more complicated living on the streets than it already is. On the contrary, it may contribute to escalating frustration, conflicts, insecurity and irresponsibility in the urban space. If you cannot get into a toilet, nature will take its course somewhere else, and so on. The homeless people are part of the city and we have to create a space where everybody can feel safe, at home and behave responsibly at the same time as we strive, of course, to help the homeless people out of their situation.  The fact that a part of the city’s inhabitants is living on the streets, may be a sign that they have nowhere else to go; a sign that they have no offers to benefit from or feel at home in and that the type of dwellings in the city should be innovated.

The City, the Attractive, and the Homeless people
Why do we not want homeless people on our pavements, in our cafés or on the bench in the bus stop? Several books, movies and reports describe the subject and already named the phenomenon “NIMBY”. The citizens of the society have accepted that homeless and socially vulnerable people exist and that they should have room and offers – as long as it is not in their vicinity. – Not In My Back Yard.

Some citizens just blend into the picture, while others are especially noted. They are the ones who stand out – including the homeless people. They may look “different” or ”abnormal” and they use the public domain differently than the rest of the inhabitants. Their behaviour deviates from the commonly acceptable around other people. When we – the respectable citizens – argue or yell at each other, let our bad habits come to the forefront because nobody sees it, sing out of tune in the shower, or make ourselves nice in front of the mirror before we enter the urban space in a suitable outfit, we do so within our own four walls. The homeless people, on the other hand, the public domain is their living room. Accordingly, the streets, the parks, the benches, the libraries, the open spaces, etc. become what others have within their four walls. Here the conflicts take place and here they take care of the personal hygiene. This different behaviour is the reason why others – we who know and observe the social code – do not understand the socially vulnerable, feel ill at ease with them, and do not like the sight of them.

Most of us, the socioeconomically advantaged, with a special notion of ”the good life” may think that it looks cosy when a large group of students – young people living ”the good life” sits down at Dronning Louise’s bridge to drink beer – at the same time thinking that it is horrid when a group of homeless people does the same. Perhaps, it is somewhat nice to us with nice and comfortable lives to have somebody to point fingers at? – Just see how far out you can get. Before we judge the homeless peoples behaviour in our petty bourgeois manner, it is important that we all remember that the urban space is the entire arena in which to expand. They have the right to do so.

Back to the Layout of the City

Obviously, the socioeconomically advantaged citizens, who through their position in society and their perception of “the good life” lead the way of how to design and develop the city so that the right places in the city attract the right people? Instead, we should prioritise focusing on how to create urban spaces that do not only meet the needs of the attractive citizens. As Preben Brandt, chairman of the Board of projekt UDENFOR, states in his book “The City and Social Inequality” (”Byen og social ulighed”) from 2009 this does not mean that all types of people should be in the same spot as people naturally always seek their own kind to be with. It means, however, that there should be room for everybody in the urban space. The capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, has just received the honour of being the best city in the world to live in for the second time around.  It has achieved this honour, among other things due to its tolerance towards different kind of people with different ways of life (mainly homosexuals). If we are to live up to this, it must be important that a social class as e.g. the homeless people are not rejected, but invited in? In a versatile city, there must be room for the controlled, the respectable, the trendy and the outsiders. The question is therefore about creating a life and a city for the vulnerable based on the standards of society but creating a city where there is room for the outsiders, too.

 

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