It’s not too bold to wager that our world is getting kinder. By any means, we are overall a freer world with more choice. Social media has made global connections possible for everyday people. Though there are many injustices left, new efforts are constantly being made to battle prejudice and hatred.
There are plenty of ways people have turned to compassion in the modern era, whether that be fighting for the rights of a marginalized group or recognizing environmental efforts to make the earth a kinder place for the generations yet to come. However, one group of people is continually shunned and disregarded. They are also one of the most visible.
The homeless communities of America — especially in urban areas — deserve compassion and opportunities to reclaim their agency. Instead, they are met with cold spikes and hard concrete in the form of anti-homeless architecture.
Actions taken against the homeless population such as anti-homeless architecture condone the separation and dehumanization of the homeless population. This dismisses their humanity and has larger implications on how we as a society approach those different than us.
Anti-homeless architecture is more broadly known as hostile architecture and is designed to be harsh. Often, cities will institute this kind of architecture in the forms of uncomfortable benches, a lack of resting space or, most notoriously, in the use of barbs, bolts or spikes to deter individuals from loitering or resting in a certain area. Some argue that this approach is a necessary evil to maintain order and prevent crime. Others say the architecture is inhumane.
Upon first reaction, hostile architecture is immediately uncomfortable — both mentally and physically. A sense of dread almost takes over as our imaginations run wild. What would it feel like to try to rest on a bed of bolts? What would you do if you were tired without a place to sleep?
However, there’s a larger social issue built into hostile architecture’s very fundamental nature — discomfort by design. At its core, hostile architecture is meant to safeguard the utopian city, a glimmering urban landscape of happy, prosperous people and clean infrastructure. The grimy, uncomfortable issue of homelessness is out of sight and therefore out of mind.
This issue is, though hostile architecture seeks to ward off the underbelly of urban life, it instead brings it to glaring permanence.
Exterior architecture is a public matter, especially the well-traveled ground of busy urban areas. After all, often the most recognizable images of major cities are their skylines. Architecture sticks in the mind, and therefore, the city's identity is associated with it. The public of that city is associated with it.
People who see hostile architecture everyday are not granted that vision of utopia intended by it. Instead, their view of the neighborhood is colored with a far darker image.
If we are exposed to certain objects or ideas often enough, they become mundane and routine. Slowly, they begin to fit into the status quo, and then who are we to judge them? A similar sentiment applies to the idea of hostile architecture and how it sways the role of homeless individuals in society.
Hostile architecture is a literal concrete reminder to those who pass it every day that homeless individuals don’t deserve comfort. This lack of empathy and compassion is far more dangerous than the nature of the architecture itself, as it inspires separation and condemnation of the homeless community. This is “othering,” isolating a group of individuals and degrading their humanity.
Homeless individuals are already incredibly vulnerable members of society. The rate of violence for homeless individuals can be nearly 20% higher than the average person, and such violence can plague these individuals mentally or physically for extended lengths of time. They are not the enemy or something to sweep under the rug. They are people who deserve to be recognized as exactly that — people. They have the same right to exist as the housed, prosperous people that pass them by.
Of course, it’s also important to address the common argument that hostile architecture keeps people off the streets by forcing them to congregate at shelters or resource areas, such as city missions. It’s true, city missions and other shelters like them have valuable resources, and Nebraska even has a landing page to help those in need get assistance.
But these resources address the symptoms, not the disease. Though there are compassionate people who are willing to help the homeless, this isn’t about merely giving homeless individuals the basics to survive. They are still separated from the general population at these shelters; their agency is still limited.
Instead, the solution must come from our own social views of homelessness. The way to rise up and defeat individual homelessness is simple enough — get money through a job and use it to contribute positively to a community. But we will never get individuals to that threshold without compassion and a lack of prejudice. For example, the current job application process is beyond bizarre, entrenched in odd protocol and dripping with privilege. Businesses should not be installing spikes for people without homes, let alone refusing to hire someone without printer access at home.
This issue is not just about the hiring process, though. It is something deeply ingrained in our view of “the others,” something taught to us with social ideals like those driving anti-homeless architecture.
Ultimately, anti-homeless architecture is not just about individual buildings or the individual companies that put them there. The visibility of these structures influences the attitude of an entire community, and it puts them on edge. If we’re a world getting kinder, why then do we reach for the spikes and the barbs, the discomfort of harsh angles and harsher stares?
Urban areas have long dealt with unique problems, homelessness just one among the many. But it’s a serious issue that deserves a more humane and compassionate response. We must look past the often instinctual reaction to recoil, favoring safety to sincerity. There is dirt and darkness and sadness in our society, but that’s not something to push away and disregard. Instead, we must find satisfaction in mending what is broken.
If we are to be a kinder world, we cannot pick whose burdens we bear and whose we leave behind, left to their own discomfort.
Emma Krab is a sophomore English and journalism major. Reach her at email@example.com.