CBD not a home for the homeless

What is the least comfortable bench in Melbourne? Certainly if you’ve spent a long day on your feet it seems easy to find a contender, perhaps a “leaning bench” that hardly beats standing, or an angled concrete slab with metal juts and railings that you can’t get comfortable on. These are examples of what critics have dubbed defensive or hostile design. Hostile to who? Well… us. Especially when we want to rest, sleep, or even just enjoy the ambience or facilities of public space.

Hostile design aims to restrict the ways an element of the environment can be interacted with. Certainly you have seen metal protrusions throughout the city to prevent skateboarding, or ultra-violet lights in public bathrooms to inconvenience intravenous drug users from finding veins. Even Myki ticket machines are now covered with ineffective spikes to discourage birds roosting. In the case of overly curved metal seats, excessive armrests, or leaning benches this is specifically to fortify spaces against those who would use it differently from the desirable purpose. As public spaces meld with the private, the intended purpose bears an increasingly economic focus– tacitly excluding the poor or homeless, those in greatest need of such public amenities.

Melbourne researcher James Petty suggests that rough sleepers are among those worse affected by this growing securitisation, and urged alertness to how all developments are shaping our public space. “Some [defensive design] looks clearly hostile, what we’re seeing is more subtle and aesthetically pleasing,” he said “this doesn’t look scary, often more neutral.” Of note was the erection of scaffolding outside Flinders St Station directly on the site previously popular among homeless sleepers. This site was the subject of an attempted eviction last year amongst a proposed ban on homelessness in the CBD which was later rescinded after mass protest. “There are little signs of construction commencing there, but it’s certainly no longer available to the homeless.”

This is not an issue limited to traditionally public spaces either, none of the homeless people interviewed knew of any initiatives by private companies to provide space for the homeless to rest. In fact many had elected to block enclosed nooks with spiked fences or slopes too steep to sleep on. While it may be unfair to place the burden of homeless care on these companies, they appear to possess the greatest influence on shaping our public space. Mr Petty says “City Councils [are willing to] mandate increasing private access to public spaces.” “For example a café might be required to provide a certain number of outdoor public seats instead of benches. But they are not public in the same way – it has been encroached on.”

So what does this mean for the rapidly growing homeless population in Melbourne? There are estimated over 116,000 homeless Australians per last census, to those in the CBD it feels like an increasing squeeze on where they are allowed to simply exist. Julia spends most days outside of Southern Cross Station hoping the generosity of strangers will buy her some time or a meal. “There’s a lot less places to go now,” she says “the wait for accommodation is 8-16 weeks, so I have to hide what I own in a bin until people go home, then find somewhere to rest.” Her largest concern however remains City Council officers newly empowered by legislation allowing them to “deal with people who are homeless, but are also in the public realm causing a problem through obstruction or removing people's right to enjoy public open space," per Mayor Robert Doyle. “They don’t charge us or tell us where to go,” Julia says “just to go somewhere else.” In an area with fewer options, particularly as winter approaches, a 72hr ban from an area could prove a serious risk.

Most rough sleepers were quick to praise the amenities services available such as showers, job search help, or application assistance. I met Darren by Batman Park, who said these kindnesses “help me feel human still.” Certainly our public spaces should not counteract this kindness, but with 1 in 10 households in ‘housing stress’, and emergency accommodation unable to fill demand it is hard to imagine how these services can keep up alone.

What other outcomes can we anticipate from these shifts then? Mr Petty has a surprisingly positive outlook. “I think,” he hedges, “that in attempts to control the visibility of the homeless we may actually see increased visibility of their issues, more empathy and awareness.”  To his credit the largest recent homeless awareness campaign in the UK followed the installation of cruel anti-homeless ground-spikes. “These developments here may be paving the way for harsher interventions, but people will take notice.” Where the homeless may not have a voice to protest hostile architecture, we can; through awareness and empathy.




 

Reflection:

I chose this story after seeing a few examples of hostile design in stations and around town, this piqued my interest to explore further and lead to the body of the story centering on the effects on homelessness. On initial conception I was unsure of the topic as I was unsure it had a sufficient degree of urgency, humanity or general news-worthiness. While this is less of a requirement in feature writing the homeless angle was able to tie it together sufficiently I feel. In retrospect I would certainly have changed a large portion of how I approached the story and what research I undertook to prepare me better for this shift. While it perhaps informed me better of issues surrounding the story which was useful in interviews with authority, I ultimately had to discard these angles to keep the story trim and focused. Perhaps they could be used for follow-up angles or be better incorporated through quotes. Ironically with more words I feel I could have set firmer boundaries for this story and fleshed it out within that.

I decided this story was news as it was a call-to-arms in response to the slow encroachment on public space and proliferation of de-humanising values. Under traditional news-values this would likely fall under conflict, but certainly adheres to proximity and currency. To some degree it is also emblematic of alternative journalism or advocacy journalism, wherein the homeless population does not have a notable voice to draw attention to this issue.

The best decision I made was to explore the issue thoroughly enough to find experts within the field who I could feasibly contact. While other interview subjects fell through I feel that the interview with James Petty was a very successful interview, allowed me to flesh out the piece with supporting arguments, opinions and ideas that were not entirely my own. And allowed me to remove myself as an active voice within the article, something I was initially intended to lean heavily on, but I think would have provided too little voice of authority to engage critically with what is a scholarly field. I am interested in writing other active-voice pieces in the future, but I preferred to lean on the voices of the homeless to provide an emotional angle here, as mine lacks the same relevancy.

The worst decision I made and what I would do differently is to begin earlier and stretch my interviews over a longer time period to allow myself more time to adjust the article and ensure its relevancy with other current affairs. As mentioned I significantly altered the focus of the article, but this left me unable to pursue some angles as hard as I would like. For instance I feel I was able to represent some under-represented ideas and voices, but it would have been advantageous to provide a stronger authority voice from City Council, if only to clash against. More time and a clearer picture of the article at an earlier date would have allowed this. I would also like to have gained permission to use other images online, or have been able to embed images from sources such as Instagram to highlight more dramatic examples of this. While I do believe that Melbourne is home to some insidious pieces of hostile design, more imposing images may be appropriate for a “call-to-arms”.

I definitely learnt how to alter my priorities in Journalism values through this. Previously some articles I have written were based in news-worthiness and lacked not only a personal interest but failed to tell an interesting angle not provided elsewhere. Given the enormous quantity of journalism published every day I would like a piece I am writing to not simply contribute to the deluge, instead to focus on issues out of the public eye or to provide an angle or quality not found elsewhere. Feature articles facilitate this and certainly make up many of the best articles I have read. It was also a pleasure to be able to identify a group that does not have access to the same voice I do and attempt to share it. More articles with prominent figures in the homeless community would be nice, but simply speaking with homeless people gave me a greater sense of their priorities and what they wished to share. To some degree my role felt somewhat disingenuous as it was a topic I was interested in and wanted to pursue myself, perhaps I could have altered the topic more to fit the opinions of those I spoke with. There is no guarantee though that this would represent the larger concerns of the homeless community, and could lead to focusing on certain threads in isolation of other topics.