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‘Designing out’: a callous or compassionate response to rough sleeping?

Dr Sarah Johnsen

Dr Sarah Johnsen

The installation of ‘spikes’ to deter people from bedding down in a doorway regularly used by rough sleepers in London has recently prompted an outcry that has gone viral in social media.  To many, such actions seem cold-hearted, callous and misguided given the obvious discomfort and vulnerability of street homeless people. To others, the very same response is viewed as a necessary means of deterring vulnerable individuals from engaging in behaviour that is severely detrimental to their own health and wellbeing and, furthermore, has a negative effect on the wider community.  Emotions run high on both sides of the debate, it seems.

The practice of ‘designing out’ street homelessness by manipulating the built environment to make ‘hotspots’ less conducive to rough sleeping has a long history here in the UK and overseas.  It has always been controversial, as evidenced by public outrage inspired by the installation of ‘anti-homeless’ sprinklers and ‘bum-proof’ seats (which are uncomfortable to sit on and virtually impossible lie on) in the United States in the 1980s. Similar measures have become commonplace in UK cities, with many local authorities gating off alleyways or removing seating frequented by rough sleepers and street drinkers, for example.  The recent focus on such practices within social media has reignited long-standing debates about the appropriateness of different responses to rough sleeping, especially those containing elements of coercion or enforcement.

Some of my own research conducted with Suzanne Fitzpatrick has shown that, in practice, such responses are almost always underpinned by a complex mix of self-serving and altruistic motives. Are they driven, at least in part, by a desire to minimise the deleterious financial impacts that rough sleeping has on local businesses?  Yes, clearly, and authorities charged with devising strategies to combat rough sleeping make no attempt to deny this fact.  Do such initiatives aim to protect residents and tourists from having their sensibilities offended by the sight of such extreme manifestations of poverty or ‘deviance’?  Yes, this too is true.

But it is also apparent, in the UK context at least, that such responses are motivated by concerns about the wellbeing of the individuals targeted. It is a well-established fact rough sleeping is severely damaging to (and indeed can have a catastrophic impact on) the health of individuals who experience it; so too that they are at disproportionate risk of harm from members of the public whom are not always sympathetic to their plight.  Rough sleepers and other members of the street population die young and are grossly over-represented in drug-related death statistics.  So, strategies such as designing out are viewed by some commentators as necessary tools to encourage (or indeed ‘make’) vulnerable people stop behaving in ways that are harmful to themselves (and, some would argue, others).

One must therefore acknowledge that the architects of designing out are not as hard-hearted and self-serving as they may perhaps at first appear, but that there is a compassionate thread running through their endeavours.  Advocates of ‘tough love’ approaches justify their use on grounds that making rough sleeping more ‘difficult’ will increase the likelihood that targeted individuals will engage with supportive interventions, by making offers of hostel accommodation more appealing, for example.  On the other side of the debate, opponents argue that such approaches may make the lives of already vulnerable individuals more difficult and, in extreme cases, strengthen their resolve to refuse to engage with support at all.

Our research suggests that on their own, initiatives such as designing out do little to make rough sleepers change their behaviour by ‘coming inside’.  In fact, they may lead to geographical displacement, such that rough sleepers will simply relocate to places where they are less likely to be disturbed. However, when integrated with other initiatives (e.g. the threat of Anti-social Behaviour Orders) together with intensive tailored support, they can, in some instances, deter targeted individuals from rough sleeping and act as a ‘crisis point’ prompting them to engage with the supportive interventions on offer.

The primary complicating factor is that it is not entirely clear why such approaches ‘work’ for some rough sleepers, but not others.  Why is it, for example, that two individuals with apparently similar demographic characteristics, homelessness histories and support needs may respond very differently to the same intervention: one accepting offers of accommodation and addiction treatment; the other persistently and vehemently telling street outreach workers to ‘f*ck off’, regardless of the consequences?  Fundamentally, as a society we still do not fully understand this thing referred to as ‘readiness to change’, nor the influence that strategies such as designing out has on ‘where people are at’ on their journey toward recovery from substance misuse and/or mental health issues.

rough sleeping - sleeping bag (2)These issues matter profoundly – not only because of the potential for such initiatives to prompt positive behaviour changes that will enhance the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people, but also the very real risk of unintended consequences, that is, of making their lives worse by further distancing them from support, for example.  They also raise critical questions about the accessibility and quality of support available; so too the attractiveness and meaningfulness of ‘the offer’ being presented.  Is the offer made to rough sleepers genuinely ‘good enough’ to justify the means employed to get them off the street?

The effectiveness and ethicality of initiatives such as designing out, and other strategies used to combat rough sleeping are currently being examined as part of the large-scale Welfare Conditionality: sanctions, support and behaviour change study.  This five-year longitudinal project being conducted by Heriot-Watt in collaboration with five other UK universities will provide robust qualitative evidence regarding the impacts of a range of interventions, and the situations in which they can and cannot be justified on ethical grounds.  It will therefore provide a basis upon which to assess which interventions, and particular combinations of enforcement and support, are (or are not) ethically defensible.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on brainsections and commented:
    I have a better idea, tax overweight people and use the money for homeless programs. That may save more then a few lives on each side of the equation.

    June 29, 2014
  2. Thanks for finally writing about >‘Designing out’: a callous or compassionate response to rough sleeping? <Liked it!

    September 10, 2014
  3. FA #

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    October 22, 2014
  4. MW #

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    October 23, 2014
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    December 23, 2014

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