How Design Hides Homelessness

Monday, June 23, 2014

A homeless man sleeps under an American Flag blanket on a park bench on September 10, 2013 in New York City (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Last week a photo went viral of "anti-homeless" spikes in London. We discuss how design can hide homelessness and change our ideas of civic space with Robert Rosenberger, assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


Robert Rosenberger

Comments [26]

Michael from Nyc

'Homeless spikes' - ? Really? How kind. What gentle compassionate loving person thought of this? Why don't they just sharpen the points and dip them in poison? Why not? We humans have a history of eliminating people we don't like with all kinds of cruelty not much different. Think of how the American Indians were given smallpox laden blankets to keep warm. Captain Belcher dipped blankets in barrels filled with smallpox to exterminate the Indians. Then, as a matter of gratitude, the King of England gave him a huge land grant! Maybe the person who designed the spikes is getting a free condominium?!

Jun. 26 2014 09:43 AM
Elizabeth Meixell from Chelsea

"No Garbage, Please. Someone Has to Sleep Here."

Jun. 24 2014 12:08 PM
Ora Berman from Freeport, NY

Thanks for bringing this issue up.
I am a landscape architect and as a designer and advocate for public space, I begin to question myself, is public space really for the public, or are we designing only for the privileged???
This is where professionals need to ask themselves, who am I designing for, the owner who pays my bills, the public (and who is the public?) or the end users...those living in the voids of our society, where no one wants to be.

Jun. 24 2014 12:04 PM

18,600,000 vacant homes in America and 610,000 homeless people... That's 31 homes per homeless person. Now, I know that banks and bankers are a composite of nothing more than mostly greedy scum, and, that their coffers have been filled against losses that would cause their demise with monies from the taxpayer, albeit without any corresponding profit sharing or shares or rebate ever accruing back to the taxpayers... So, given that most of this wasting real estate portfolio is deteriorating, again at our expense : think depressed property values to our homes from neglected eyesores that the banks are unwilling to maintain... Wouldn't it be a solution of sorts. - for everyone, to simply grant homes to those homeless people capable of maintaining themselves at some acceptable threshold? That measure being determined by looking more closely at just who is homeless because of the banks or because the govt has dropped the ball in its obligation to take care of veterans. By the way, over. 50,000 of the 610,000 homeless people are veterans. Why are we letting these parasitic institutions, banks, contribute to a blighted experience that can be dangerous for the rest of us? Namely dilapidated properties and an unnecessary homeless population of people who over time will also pose more of a menace die to their gradually deteriorating conditions both physically and mentally. After all, it is greedy bankers, and mortgage brokers as well as that other scourge, real estate attorneys that have created a significant percentage of this problem. It used to be we could blame the problem on the eàrly release of patients from mental hospitals for this problem. I doubt that is still the blame after all if these years.

Jun. 24 2014 09:07 AM
Speechless from Former NYCer

Wow. Can we call the intolerant comments ignorant? So many people want NYC to be clean, but clean of undesirable people: Price them out, put spikes all over everything. It is wrong to believe that homelessness is a problem of individuals when scientific research shows that it is a systemic problem. When there is less affordable housing, there are more homeless people. That is it.

Jun. 23 2014 11:27 PM

I live near a homeless shelter for men in NYC; three demented men have punched me. Now I am frightened to walk in my neighborhood; at some point, an assault will damage me. These men need mental health services. I would be pro-spike just so I could feel safe entering my home.

Jun. 23 2014 07:51 PM

The spikes were in an alcove in front of the door bell buttons. Anyone think there was a problem with someone camping out and obstructing access?

I was in a NYC subway station yesterday. I really wanted to sit down. Too bad there was someone sprawled across an entire bench. The little bumps between the spaces were just too low apparently to deter this one. Higher bumps? Yes.

There is no excuse for the extreme inequality in the US. On the other hand, many homeless are unemployable in any situation. Addressing the problem, and not by building more and more shelters and renting more and more free apartments, is a societal problem and the solutions are at that level, not at the level of people wanting to live without bums all over their entrance or people wanting to sit down in a subway station.

Jun. 23 2014 01:13 PM
Scott from New York

Some human beings still believe they are exempt from one of the primary laws of nature. The powerful are still enacting the fundamentally unhealthy fantasy that they own the earth. The homeless, however, are similar to the the Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil or the Cheroke of North America. The greed and cruelty that these land owner megalomaniacs exhibit towards the homeless show that the current prevalent culture does not work. This culture has not worked well for the past 10,000 years and when compared to the 3 million years of what did work for us should be seriously examined and recalled like a GM car.

Jun. 23 2014 12:38 PM

I am a former advocate for the homeless. I am sympathetic to the desire of people who do not want homeless people outside their door - if we are being honest, we will all admit that we have this desire. We have to address the mental health, alcohol and drug abuse issues that underlie homelessness, particularly given the thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have recently joined their ranks. In NYC, everyone has the right to shelter. Still, while some reject the shelters because there are unclean or unsafe, the homeless on the street are most often there because they prefer to be independent of "the system" because they are schizophrenic or suffering from some other illness. There are now shelters that allow active drug users, and still there are homeless on the streets. At the same time, no job available to a homeless person will allow him to live in a decent place in NYC. Should these people be "forced" into an institution? We don't believe in that either, do we?

Jun. 23 2014 12:15 PM
frances from Upper East Side

Across the street and down the block are 2 other hi-rise bldgs with nice, welcoming public spaces. One even has a water fountain. I walk past both and aside from the occasional noisy dog, I've never seen either abused. The deal is that the government lowers taxes for buildings that have public spaces that must be available 24/7, as I understand. Most are visible from the street and people aren't going to "misbehave" with a doorman watching and the lots of people walking by. OTOH, I'm also someone who really hates walking by the garbage bags busted open by people retrieving cans/bottles. City life is messy and the more we do to break down barriers and help each other, the better it will be for all of us.

Jun. 23 2014 12:13 PM
Zaftig from NYC

Obviously it's a complicated issue, but we still lack public space in the city. We need to do better with helping the homeless, but they will always be there as part of society and our city, and they need somewhere to go. There is more public space now in NYC than a few years ago, but there are still relatively few places where you can sit down, much less close your eyes, without having to buy something. Some of the benches in my neighborhood recently had bars installed in the middle to prevent people from lying down. I find this pretty excessive, as the people who sleep there generally are not bothering anybody. We've got plenty of spikes and anti-loitering architecture in NYC, but that London example is pretty terrible design. Why did they create that dead space in the first place?

Jun. 23 2014 12:09 PM

The spikes in the photo are near the intercom/buzzer for the building. So, obviously, people who lived there or delivery people or guests had the problem that they couldn't get into the building because people were sprawled out there. If I'm paying rent or assessments I want that problem fixed.

In other words, how does my front door become the solution for the city's homeless problem? When does it end? Who is responsible if a homeless person dies or attacks someone on my property? If I let that person "live" there for several months, have I consented to and endorsed his behavior?

Jun. 23 2014 12:06 PM
SJay from LES

Remove the spikes and replace them with free IPads so the homeless can vote

Jun. 23 2014 12:05 PM
steve from NYC

Nana from NYC: You sound like a very understanding and empathic person. Please follow through on these feelings. Please leave some blankets and food right outside your apartment, or maybe a used mattress. We need people like you to take a stand and welcome the homeless into your home or at least onto your block, so they can sleep in peace.

Please show how you are better than those who refuse to welcome the homeless.

Jun. 23 2014 12:02 PM
Jane from E Village

Why is the MTA removing the benches from bus stop shelters? Is this the reason? Almost all are gone now along 14th Street. Elderly riders and others need to sit while waiting for the bus, and if homeless people are able to sleep on the benches, fine with me.

Jun. 23 2014 11:59 AM
CR from Manhattan

What ever happened to bums? Why is every drunk sleeping in a doorway, subway, alleyway, subway grate etc a "homeless" victim? Whatever happened to vagrancy laws? We used to have laws that kept vagrants off private property.

Doormen, cops, shopkeepers, etc have been "shooing" bums out of doorways and ATMs for as long as there have been bums and doormen and ATMs.

Here's how "we" should treat them.

- My property? I do whatever I want to it - spikes included.
- Your property? You do what you want to it. Let the bums sleep in your door, crap in your alley, scatter your garbage all over, pester you/your neighbors/your children, etc. Enjoy.
- Public property? "We" decide. That means collectively... you don't get to decide to open the ATM door because it's cold out.

Jun. 23 2014 11:59 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Seriously? A caller thinks it's too "comfortable" for homeless people to sleep on the sidewalk?? Until there's a better place for them to go, keeping them from sleeping in places like this is not "helping" them.

Jun. 23 2014 11:58 AM

Democrat city administrations have been passing laws to forbid feeding the homeless. I think NYC has done this.

Jun. 23 2014 11:58 AM
Shawn from NJ

40-50% of homeless have alcohol or drug abuse issues. A significant portion have an issue with psychiatric disorders. We are not talking about an individual who has a full time job and decides to sleep on the street for fun. These are people who need help, and many are a nuisance to the businesses nearby.

You don't have a right to sleep anywhere you choose.

Jun. 23 2014 11:58 AM
thatgirl from manhattan

A bit different than spikes, but no less valid: all the rules of our new corporate "public" parks. They look like any of our public parks, but are shut down completely for "private events," don't allow dogs on anything but pavement (even on-leash), and have privately-employed "police" walking about, issuing tickets for infractions of various natures.

Jun. 23 2014 11:58 AM
ellen from Manhattan

There's a site to look up the ranking of any building/public space. My building scored very low - our "benches" are concrete with no backs, penalizing the residents in their effort to discourage thee "unwanted" folks from nearby public houses from coming into our rather large public space.

Jun. 23 2014 11:57 AM
john from office

Wow the liability question should also be addressed. These spikes look like a trip hazard and could be dangerous.

Jun. 23 2014 11:57 AM

I put a fence around my property to keep people out. I put a lock on my door to keep people out.

If someone wants to design their PRIVATE property to keep homeless, (likely) mentally ill people from sleeping there, I'm ok with that.

Just because I can build or buy a piece of property, why should I have to endure (yes, endure) the homeless on my from step?

Who is going to clean up the urine? Who is going to call the police after I'm attacked?

Jun. 23 2014 11:56 AM
Tee from NJ

Spikes embedded in the pavement are dangerous to everyone. What if someone trips and falls on one? We need to provide better solutions for homelessness, and maintain compassion until the problem is solved.

Jun. 23 2014 11:56 AM

Many fire dept water inlets on buildings in NYC have spikes or jagged things to prevent you from sitting on them. This is not just about homeless people, other people like to spend time in their own cities.

Jun. 23 2014 11:54 AM
Nana from NYC

I heard about the spikes on the ground...and my first thought was how that is the solution for pigeons.
Shocking to think someone would think to use it against humans.

People have forgotten the lessons of the Nazis and how they systematically & methodically marginalized and dehumanized people (Jews) to the point "unwanted" /"undesirable" humans were executed like animals in camps. Europeans sat in silence and enjoyed their Brahms and Beethoven and Wagner as this was going on. Civilized people treating other people like discarded refuse was acceptable less than 100 years ago in a very civilized and educated society.
It can happen again to anyone who is treated this way.

Jun. 23 2014 11:05 AM

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