The Hidden Ways Our Cities Are Hostile to the Unhoused

Instead of addressing the homelessness crisis, US cities across the country have replaced benches and ledges with planters and spikes to prevent unhoused people from sleeping comfortably.

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This story is syndicated from The Arrow, the newspaper of Utica High School in Utica, MI. The original version of the story ran here.

Hostile Architecture: a strong word used for a dangerous, or even just annoying, type of structure in a public space. These designs are an easy out to the increasing homelessness problem, making it so that average citizens  can’t  see the issue, and may even think that it has been solved.

Anti-homeless design is nothing short of inhumane. It can look like rocks on the ground where a homeless person may want to sleep, or designing benches to be uncomfortable by using spikes, spaces, bars, or shaped like modern art.​

Art credit: Sandra Xinyu Ye

Even deflectors are used to stop the homeless from urinating when they have no other choice but to do so outside. The Seattle Department of Transportation has set multiple bike racks in places where unhoused people have been caught sleeping before. According to The Urbanist, these bike racks were removed after intense backlash–showing that when we use our voices, we can reverse decisions to build these discriminatory creations.​

Urine Deflector from Wonders of London

An excerpt from The Guardian about congress voting on whether homeless encampments should be taken down pointed out that “the federal count of homeless people had reached 580,000 last year.”

Let’s focus on benches. Many public benches aren’t just uncomfortable for those who need a place to sleep. Most of the time, they are also uncomfortable for people who just want to sit down. Holes in benches can cause those who cannot afford shelter to freeze and make those who need to sit just as cold. These benches have been created so that unhoused people wouldn’t be seen as much by the public and thus not “disturb them.” ​

​One of the most known examples of these structures hidden in plain sight is the Camden bench. The well-known Camden bench is the best example of what are called “anti-delinquent” benches. While it does stop teens from skating on it, is graffiti proof, and has zero crevices that might lend themselves to drug-related activity, it is more of a tool for ignorance than for safety. When you do not see these things, they still exist in the darker alleyways where unhoused people still exist and their numbers are increasing. You cannot have a true statistic for something you cannot see.​ Some people, like criminologist C. Ray Jeffery publicized the idea of  in “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” claiming that if there was “less poverty,” then there would be less crime. In reality, crime could be reduced by just creating more accessible homeless shelters or even keeping drug dealers off the streets so that fewer people come into contact with drugs. If the housing crisis is an economic problem, then the government should be working on economic solutions instead of finding the easiest option.

Places like New York and California have held a “Broken Window Policy” saying that those who cannot see the “broken windows” or “uncivilized” people will not want to cause disruption as much themselves. While the percentage of crimes due to this went down because of it, they also lost a lot of middle-class voters, upsetting the very people they were looking to please. These methods spiked during economic crises like the one in 2009 and the ones in the 90s.​

When asked about these methods, principal Tim Youngblood of Utica High School in Utica, Mississippi explained: “I don’t think it’s something I would encourage in a school setting, but I don’t know where else they would sleep. I would say that if I were the head of the parks department I would encourage something like that.”

Planters Where the Homeless Had Slept Before in San Francisco by Joel Umanzor from The Standard

Just in 2023, unhoused people like Steve Valeck were upset that flower planters were added to their streets in San Francisco, according to The San Francisco Standard. These planters were in the exact spot that many people would sleep, showing up in the middle of the night. These planters have not been taken down to date.​

You might be thinking “this is horrible” and “how do we solve this?” The best things that can be done right now is to keep others informed about this issue, which has existed for decades, and hold our government accountable. Not all hope has been lost for this cause. 

In 1979, the New York State Supreme Court heard arguments on Callahan v. Carey. Attorney Robert Hayes, co-founder of the Coalition for the Homeless, sued the city in the New York State Supreme Court, arguing that unhoused men had a right to shelter​. The city settled the lawsuit in 1981 with a consent decree, which required the city to provide a sufficient number of beds to meet the needs of every unhoused person looking for shelter.​ Remember though that New York is only one state and even then, they only have the bare minimum. Additionally, current Mayor Eric Adams is looking to suspend this bill. 

If a proper amount of money and care went into helping our unhoused population, then maybe we all would be happier to see unhoused people off the streets, and any dark neglected corners finally lit.

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