To a homeless person looking for a place to sleep, a bench with an armrest jutting out of the center, small metal spikes embedded on a windowsill or a stoop built at a slant all carry a clear message: “We don’t want you here.” A French charity has launched a campaign calling on people to denounce such so-called hostile architecture, designed to keep homeless people from using certain spaces.
The Fondation Abbé Pierre, a French charity dedicated to housing equality, launched a campaign on December 6 under the hashtag #soyonshumains (#letsbehuman), asking people to post photos of installations deliberately built to dissuade homeless people from sheltering or resting in certain areas. The charity also designed a special interactive map that showcases any tweets that are geolocalised.
"Spikes to make people flee," wrote this Twitter user.
"Before, a woman slept here from time to time," wrote this Twitter user.
“Chasing homeless people away isn’t a solution”
One person who posted a picture under the hashtag #soyonshumains is a Paris city worker who spoke with the FRANCE 24 Observers team. Because he is not officially authorised to speak to the media, he asked us to refrain from printing his real name.
When I saw the campaign on Facebook, I immediately shared a photo that I took last month of a bank in my neighbourhood. There used to be two or three homeless people camping out in front of it. Then, one day, I saw that a series of spikes had been installed on the windowsill. I was shocked. It was clear to me that these were meant to keep homeless people away.
I was aware of measures like this because I used to live in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, where city workers went on strike when they found out the mayor wanted them to use repellent spray to chase homeless people away from the entrance to a mall. [Editor’s note: In 2007, the city purchased a large amount of Malodore, a repellent substance, to be used to remove a group of homeless people from outside a shopping centre. While Argenteuil said it did not actually use the spray, some of the product was handed over to the shopping centre, whose staff did use it.]
“In my line of work, I meet a lot of homeless people”
I manage the security teams that patrol Paris’s public parks and gardens. In my line of work, I meet a lot of homeless people.
A lot of them try to sleep in the parks. When we close the doors for the night, we have to tell them to leave. Unfortunately, we don’t have any other solutions to offer them.
I also volunteer at a soup kitchen. More and more of our homeless clients have been asking us for tents. It’s a sign of how desperate the situation is. Before, there were less homeless people and more squatters in Paris. Now, it is much harder for people to set up camps or move into empty buildings.
I think that the government needs to do something to address the problem, even if it is just setting aside a place where people can pitch tents. They definitely need to build public toilets.
“Urban architects are integrating these features in building and design plans”
In the past 10 years, the homeless population in France has increased by 50 percent.
We are seeing more and more of these [anti-homeless] devices not just in France, but across Europe. Different people are responsible – sometimes it is the state, sometimes the city, sometimes it is private individuals. A lot of urban architects are integrating these features into building and design plans.
We do understand that there are objective reasons why a private business might install something like this. [If homeless people are camping out in front of their business], it can get dirty or look bad for the company’s image. But these installations do nothing to solve the problem, they just push it farther away.
The state has a responsibility to create housing for the homeless. But, ultimately, private citizens have a responsibility too. We can’t become numb to this situation. As long as people are sleeping in the streets, we need to speak up and demand a solution.
There has been widespread outcry in the past few days about a privately owned Parisian parking garage that installed automatic sprinklers to stop homeless people from entering the space or using it as a toilet. The company that owns the garage claimed that they had tried other measures to no avail.
Many people who took up the #soyonshumains challenge posted pictures of benches in the Paris metro, claiming that the true reason behind sloped seats or armrests were to dissuade people from using the benches as beds.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the Parisian transport authority RATP to ask why they had chosen to install “leaning bars” instead of traditional benches. We got this response from their communications team.
These seats respond to the needs of our passengers, who sometimes have very short wait times on the platforms. The metro isn’t meant to become a home or a reception centre for homeless people.
The RATP did note that, in 1994, it created a special Social Welcome service with 90 employees tasked with taking care of any homeless people found within the transportation system.
“[The RATP] is conscious of the problem and is working to respond to it,” said Robert of Fondation Abbé Pierre.