The only impact I can have on government policy is when I get to vote in the next general election. I think the public’s perception of homelessness is the only thing that I can have any influence over any time soon. With this in mind I’m going to find some artists who have tackled homelessness to see how they have approached the issue.
I’m going to start by exploring what shouldn’t be done to deal with homelessness. During our workshop with Jussi Parikka, he talked about the dark side of design. He showed us an example of architectural design known as ‘defensive architecture’ which is used to prevent rough sleeping in certain areas. The most disturbing example of this are spikes like these:
These brutal spikes have only one purpose and that is to deter rough sleeping. These started appearing around London a few years ago, their appearance caused a huge debate about how we treat homeless people in our society. Thankfully, due to the public outcry, a lot of these spikes have since been removed. They highlight a brutal and vindictive mindset that dehumanizes rough sleepers. When I see these, it makes me want to take an angle grinder and a sledgehammer and go do some worthwhile performance art.
Space, Not Spikes
Thankfully a group of artists feel the same way. They have transformed these travesties into beds. Beds which contain books on the housing crisis, inequality, gentrification, place-hacking and poverty.
In an interview with the Independent, Leah Borromeo, the primary artist involved says,
“These devices say ‘we don’t want you here because you’re not rich enough’. There’s too much of that in the world as it is – and in a time where anyone could end up in dire straits at any time, these are downright aggressive.
We should be addressing the causes of poverty, not shoo off those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.”
These spikes are just the most obvious example of defensive architecture. Sadly our cities are slowly becoming more inhospitable to the homeless in a way which many don’t realise. An illuminating article written by Alex Andreou speaks to this issue,
“We see these measures all the time within our urban environments, whether in London or Tokyo, but we fail to process their true intent. I hardly noticed them before I became homeless in 2009. An economic crisis, a death in the family, a sudden breakup and an even more sudden breakdown were all it took to go from a six-figure income to sleeping rough in the space of a year. It was only then that I started scanning my surroundings with the distinct purpose of finding shelter and the city’s barbed cruelty became clear.”
I think what I find most interesting is that this kind of design has been surreptitiously introduced to our cities over time. The spikes are the most obvious example, so they garnered rightful criticism, but what about the subtle design that no one notices until it directly affects you?
“‘When you’re designed against, you know it,’ says Ocean Howell, who teaches architectural history at the University of Oregon, speaking about anti-skateboarding designs. ‘Other people might not see it, but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here. The same is true of all defensive architecture. The psychological effect is devastating.'”
Before researching homelessness, I would have never noticed these devious designs. They would have just blended into the background as they did with Alex Andreou. Luckily there are people not as oblivious as me.
Nils Norman, a UK artist, has photographed examples of defensive architecture since the late 90s. His work shows some of the more subtle designs at work in our cities. Here are just some examples:
Unless we want our cities to look like they were designed by Bowser, we need to stop this kind of spiteful design.
One way of doing this is through satire:
Fabian Brunsing’s work is a pointed commentary on this kind of appalling architecture, I think it’s a clever idea and one which conveys the issue immediately.
I feel like defensive architecture is such a wasteful ‘solution’ because it shows such a nasty intent. It was designed for a horrible purpose and effort has been put in to make someone’s already dismal existence that much more horrible. I think of the wasted energy which could have been spent in the opposite direction – making homeless people’s lives better. Sean Godsell’s Park Bench House project is a great example of what our public spaces could look like if they were designed with noble intentions:
In a similar vein, Micheal Rakowitz is the artist behind an ongoing project called paraSITE. This project uses inflatable structures which connect to the outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.
They provide a temporary warm shelter for homeless people, but are not really meant to be a long-term solution. As Michael Rakowitz himself says,
“These shelters should disappear like the problem should. In this case, the real designers are the policymakers.”
A Helping Hand
Thousands of people volunteer their time everyday by helping homeless people directly through shelters, charities, or by just giving someone in need a bit of food and water. There is probably no better way to directly impact the wellbeing of a homeless person, than by treating them as another human being and engaging with them as a person, rather than pretending that you don’t see them. I remember giving a homeless woman a spare donut I had after greedily buying two from Greggs. As I gave her the donut I remember saying “I’m a greedy bastard, I couldn’t eat this one. I’m such a fat shit.” or something to that effect. She said I was handsome and thanked me for the food. She got a donut and I got a compliment. Whether it’s something quite trivial like me giving a donut away, or the more devoted help volunteers give everyday, there’s nothing better than a helping hand.
Jody Wood’s Beauty in Transition project is a mobile beauty salon in Denver, Colorado which gives free haircuts to homeless people. It may seem like an empty gesture or something which isn’t really a priority, but perceptions are everything, changing those is all important. It allows homeless people to recover some of who they were before homelessness defined them. The video above shows what impact this can have on the people taking part.
“Rather than increased invisibility behind the institutional doors of a shelter, this project considers increased visibility through reclaimed authorship to one’s self-image, while breaking long-standing and pervasive social barriers of touch that stigmatize someone who has become homeless.
Because homeless subjects are often entrenched in a daily struggle for survival, where a set number of basic needs are negotiated (food, shelter, clothing), I am interested in exploring how identity and agency recedes under a narrowing structure—and how this process can be resisted, or reversed. Beauty in Transition provides a cosmetic service. While this gesture may seem superfluous, providing access to something extra, something beyond necessity, is an act geared toward re-accessing parts of identity that have been pushed aside or forgotten. This ‘nonessential’ service has the potential to amplify and transform, however temporarily, people’s lives.” – Jody Woods
Another example of this regaining of identity can be found on the streets on London:
“It’s quite an intimate interaction that I give as a hairdresser to somebody. So it’s also about the superficial side of it, making somebody feel a bit fresher and a bit sharper, but equally it’s me connecting with them on a human level and spending time talking to them.” – Josh Coombes
This approach directly targets the superficial, which might at first seem quite pointless. You could ask “What does a haircut solve?” It may in fact not solve any deep-rooted issues, but it does enable homeless people to see themselves for what they could be, or once were. They can have hope that things can change. To remind them that they just like the rest of us. Human.
Make It Unavoidable
Perhaps the only good thing to come from the introduction of homeless spikes is that they’ve offered a vivid image of the struggles homeless people face. They’ve made people think, if only for a moment about homeless people and rough sleeping.
This is what I like about Maxwell Rushton’s Left Out.
I think this sculpture and documentary encapsulates so much about homelessness. It places the issue right in front of people. Making it unavoidable. Some people just walk by like it’s invisible, they don’t even notice. Others attempt to help, or at least try to investigate. For those who do notice, they can’t help but be affected somehow, just from the simple act of viewing, it has an impact.
“I made this work because I’ve been venerable, living in supported accommodation as a teenager. Seeing people on the street reminds me of that time in my life. Luckily I had somewhere to go after, but so many people don’t have anyone or anywhere to turn to.” – Maxwell Rushton
So What Can I Do About It?
All of the examples above show that everyone can make a difference: artists, designers, photographers, sculptors, hairdressers, anyone. The only condition which you need to meet, is that you care.
I know that I want to create a game. A game which makes people think about what it must feel like to be homeless. Hopefully in a way which triggers something and makes them feel differently or act differently. It’s my hope that in some small way, what I create can change perceptions, if just for the few who play.