How Anti-Homeless Agendas are Built into Public Space

By Robert Rosenberger

The problem of homelessness in the United States is quickly growing out of control.  According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report, more than 560,000 people experience homelessness on a given night, including those in shelters and other programs, and those known to be on the street.  Since last fall, a state of emergency over the issue has been declared in the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, as well as the state of Hawaii.   

Cities approach this crisis in a variety of ways, from increasing their efforts at outreach and temporary sheltering, to developing longer-term housing solutions.  But as I and others argue, many cities also take up another strategy entirely: a systematic effort to push the homeless out of public spaces.  Such efforts involve a different conception of the problem itself.  Rather than focus on assisting the less fortunate, the focus is instead placed on policing how public spaces can be used, and on decreasing the visibility of the city’s homelessness problem.  This agenda can include both anti-homeless laws and anti-homeless public-space designs.

There are a variety of laws aimed at the homeless, most targeting normal and necessary aspects of everyday life.  For example, there are “sit/lie” laws that prohibit behaviors such as sleeping in public, sitting and lying down, camping, and loitering.  As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports, cities in the US have seen a spike in the enactment of such laws in the last few years.  Activists have responded with a push for ‘Right to Rest’ legislation that would overturn and prohibit these kinds of ordinances, but these efforts face stiff resistance.  Other laws prohibit everything from pushing shopping carts, to sleeping in cars, to panhandling, to storing personal items in public space.  

Series of ‘No Trespassing’ signs along an i-75 onramp in downtown Atlanta


Taken together, this panoply of regulations is often understood to amount to the criminalization of homelessness itself, offloading the problem to the criminal justice system.  An effect of this effort — and I argue its central goal — is to force the homeless out of public areas and into less visible and less safe parts of the city.

How does design contribute to this agenda?  To answer this question, we must first think about the ways in which the typical objects found in public spaces are somehow open to different coherent designs, and also open to fitting into a variety of different societal purposes.

Let’s start with a simple example: the garbage can.  Garbage cans of course serve a main societal purpose: they offer a place to deposit refuse.  This is the purpose for which garbage cans are designed, manufactured, sold, and installed.  But as a public-space object, they are subject to different interpretations, and they are put to different uses by different people.  For example, garbage cans are one of many surfaces that get tagged with graffiti.  This example is instructive because anti-graffiti campaigns operate not only through policies such as the imposition of fines, but also through strategic re-designs.  Designers develop garbage can surfaces that are not conducive to spray paint tags, markings, and art.  One popular version is metal can casings fit with vertical slats.

Garbage cans fit with vertical metal slat casings, rain hoods, and built-in hasps for padlocks on Georgia Tech’s campus

Corrugated and perforated surfaces can also serve this purpose.  The websites of garbage can manufacturers often market these designs explicitly as anti-graffiti features.  Graffiti-resistant paint and surfaces are also available.  Another very different example is a garbage can’s potential as a place to hide a bomb, as we learn from the ubiquitous “If You See Something, Say Something”-style consciousness-raising campaigns.  In the effort to deter terrorism, garbage can designs may feature casings that allow law enforcement and others to easily look inside to check for suspicious items.  Cans with clear cases and bags, or even simple horizontal rings from which hang a clear trash bag, proliferated across train platforms and other public venues in the US after 9/11.

These same dynamics of garbage can design can be seen in relation to the problem of homelessness.  The homeless will at times search through garbage cans for discarded food and other items, and the homeless will also sometimes collect bottles from recycling bins that can be traded in for small amounts of money.  To discourage this behavior, cans are often fit with a “rain hood,” a feature that in addition to keeping rain water out of the open can also functions to discourage one from reaching down inside.  

Two prevalent forms of recycling can in downtown Denver, both enclosed, and both with locking mechanisms built into the casing

Locking mechanisms are also often built into the casing, or hasps are attached to the casing so that the can may be closed securely with an external padlock.  The combination of an exterior casing, a fixed rain hood, and a locking mechanism makes it almost impossible to easily pick trash or recyclables from such cans.

Another example is benches.  Once more we can spell out the central societal purpose for which benches are made, bought, and installed in public spaces: they afford a place to sit.  They are of course a common feature of public parks, subway platforms, and bus stops.  And we can think of many other purposes to which a bench may be put.  It might be used as a makeshift table.  Joggers might use the bench as a fixture to lean against while stretching.  Cyclists may use a bench as a place to chain up a bike.  

But of course benches play an iconic role in cities with regard to issues of homelessness; they are sometimes used by the homeless as beds.  Again, cities often utilize design options that discourage this behavior.  One popular feature is the addition of armrests.

An anti-sleep bench beside an anti-pick garbage can in New York City


Armrests and other dividers functionally break up the seating surface and discourage the bench’s use as a bed.  These designs are occasionally marketed on manufacturers’ websites as anti-loitering features.  Other designs that perform this anti-sleep function include sloping surfaces and bucket seating.

An individual anti-pick garbage can or anti-sleep bench may discourage a homeless person from spending time in a particular area, say, the area around that particular can or bench.  But the experience of such devices must be taken together with any number of other anti-homeless designs that pervade many downtowns.  Hillsides, greenspaces, and other in-between areas are often fenced off.  Alcoves, alleyways, and sidewalks are sometimes hosed off at night and left drenched.  Ledges are sometimes set with spikes.  In addition, rather than modify particular amenities to prohibit the uses favored by the homeless, sometimes cities will remove those amenities entirely.  Parks may roll on with no benches at all.  Entire districts may be devoid of public restrooms, save perhaps for those available only to paying customers.  Stretches of sidewalks in Southern cities, where it gets blisteringly hot in the summer, may continue along with no sign of shade.  These and any number of other anti-homeless design measures, combined with the array of anti-homeless laws tallied above, can effectively flush the homeless out of shared public spaces, and render the problem of homelessness itself invisible.  In this way, these designs instantiate and enforce a city’s larger anti-homeless agenda.

With the assistance of a seed grant from the Center for Urban Innovation, I am currently working on a polemical pamphlet expanding this line of argumentation.  Tentatively entitled Guilty Technology, this small book searches for novel ways to draw out and criticize this increasingly pervasive anti-homeless agenda built directly into the objects of our city’s shared public spaces.  A central project of this work is to use insights from social theory and the philosophy of technology to formulate a set of concepts and arguments that make it easier to see this trend in policy and design, and make it harder to ignore the unjust and immoral consequences.        


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