Homelessness and Controlling Public Spaces

An uproar was raised a few days ago on Twitter over some pictures of anti-homeless spikes that were photographed in London.

This sparked an outcry over these spikes and others found elsewhere in the world, comparing the treatment of homeless people to pigeons – installing spikes where cities don’t want them to sleep.  Anti-homeless spikes are nothing new though, and I quickly found lots of discussion over tactics used to control homeless people and other ‘unsavoury elements’ from using public spaces.

There are numerous lists and collections of photos of anti-sit spikes, covering flowerpots, hand rails, and low walls with spikes to keep people from sitting or sleeping on them.  Some even argue that benches with armrests in the middle are designed to make them uncomfortable for sleeping.

My favourite is the ‘Camden bench’, designed to be anti-grafitti, anti-flypapering, anti-homeless-sleeping, anti-skateboarding, anti-littering, anti-bag snatching, and anti-drug dealing (if you can believe it).  I agree with this commentary that argues that this bench has become a non-object, trying to design an item of public furniture for a city that doesn’t engage with the city at all.

Camden bench (from Factory Furniture)

Camden bench (from Factory Furniture)

How does this reflect on the cities themselves?  How do residents of these cities view these measures, if, indeed, they notice them at all.  Is the inability to sit on a flowerpot, or a low wall something that strikes residents as important?  The apparent concern cities have with controlling ‘unpleasant’ parts of their population has resulted in a dizzying array of material remains in public places, and I wonder whether this materialization of control of homelessness can be traced into the past.

Research into homelessness, begging, and vagrancy in the past is difficult, with the archaeological invisibility of homeless people making historical sources the main source of information.  The earliest mentions of homelessness and vagrancy I’ve found is in Ancient Greece, where sources identify two classes of poor, the dependent poor such as serfs and slaves, and the independent poor who were the lowest class.  There is some evidence for housing of homeless people in ancient Greece, but researchers believe that temporary shelters, such as tents similar to today, would have been used by homeless people both in cities and in rural areas.  It is interesting to speculate whether people would have lived on the streets in the Classical world, as slavery would have been a result of crushing poverty.  The social institution of slavery and the responsibility the rich had towards their slaves might have removed many of the people who might otherwise have been living on the streets.

I find it interesting that there is little mention in the Ancient Greek textual sources about pity or contempt for homeless people in urban areas.  Does this mean they didn’t create these feelings from contemporary inhabitants?  There is certainly no evidence that I could find for attempts to control and remove people from living on the streets.  This might mean that people didn’t live on the streets.  Or more likely, the more enfranchised inhabitants didn’t have the same emotional response as modern cities.

In late Imperial China, poverty was not a social crime and was not considered a reflection of moral character.  Instead it was seen as misfortune, and there was no distinct social class as ‘the poor’, though widows and orphans without families were eligible for governmental support.  In fact, beggars were quite institutionalized, with beggar kings, and the understanding that beggars might commit ‘social terrorism’ if they weren’t paid.  This ‘social terrorism’ was only effective because the existence of beggars was culturally and socially acceptable, unlike today, where vagrants and homeless people are kept out of sight as much as possible.

Maybe that’s the biggest difference.  Modern cities have decided that homelessness and begging is somehow unsightly, and that it must be swept under the rug as much as possible.  Cities try to pretend that homelessness does not exist, as if the downturn of fortunes of the afflicted reflects poorly not only on themselves, but on the city.  Therefore, cities try to control where the homeless sit and sleep, trying to keep them out of sight and away from busy areas.

If cities and communities in the past had no understanding that homelessness and begging indicated poor moral character, then there would have been no desire to remove them from sight.  This might explain why I have found no evidence for controlling homeless people, beggars, vagrants, or other ‘unsavoury elements’ in public spaces in the past.

Of course, archaeology tends to have a bit of a blind spot towards open, poorly defined, outdoor spaces.  Maybe we just haven’t found them yet.

What do you think?

Further Reading:

Ault, Bradley. “Housing the Poor and Homeless in Ancient Greece.” Ancient Greek Houses and Households: Chronological, Regional, and Social Diversity. Ed. Ault, Bradley; Nevett, Lisa. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 140-160.

Lu, Hanchao.  Street Criers: A Cultural History of Chinese Beggars.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

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