Anti-homeless design must end

The walk on your way to school, work, or a friend’s house may seem mundane to you, but for some, it is a battlefield. 

“Defensive architecture” is and has been present in many major metropolitan areas, including our very own Shorewood, and the greater Milwaukee area. It can appear in forms such as benches divided by armrests, preventing homeless people from resting comfortably, or even slatted awnings that are unsuitable for providing shelter from weather. Retractable spikes and rocks that line streets and parking lots leave no room for tents, or other living accommodations of the sort. 

Though we may not even take notice of the way we push away and isolate those unhoused, much of this, on a corporate level, is intentional. It is easy not to notice these subtle aspects of our environment – in fact, it is what keeps us moving without disruption to our bustling lives. 

We attack the symptoms sprung from marginality.

For this reason, things like benches are seen as places of passing. Somewhere you wait for the bus, perhaps, or take a short break to sip coffee on. But these moments must come to a close, and when the sun sets, we all – even the stumblers, every last straggler – will find our way home. However, this is not a life that every person has the privilege of sharing. Being homeless is a never-ending and exhausting job, and no place of rest exists for these people when the day is done.

Much of this comes down to ‘desirability’ as a customer and consumer in our modern world. It is much more attractive to see a street of businesses populated with boxes of plants and café chalkboards than a crowd of beggars. It’s what we do – we chase the off-putting, the less-privileged, the anti-social out of our carefully-curated, deceptively “public” spaces. Nothing is solved; we just get a prettier view. We attack the symptoms sprung from and emphasized by marginality without tending to the root problem. There can be, and often are, multiple reasons why someone may be stuck in a financial or social hole, and victim-blaming helps no one climb out.

It is really important to be aware of how we create these physical and psychological barriers against those more economically disparaged than us, but also notice what’s missing in our community. It is common for establishments to have customer-only bathrooms, but in doing so, not everyone can afford to wash up, or perhaps take care of menstrual needs properly. You can walk down Oakland and not find a single suitable resting place. Due to all this and so much more, it is easy for issues as complicated as this to overwhelm us. A good first step you can always take is just being aware. This doesn’t necessarily mean devoting your life’s work to activism – no career path is all-encompassing or suitable for everyone. Just by taking a few minutes out of a walk home to notice how certain things may be wired to exclude certain people, we can learn a lot more and further think of how we want to shape the world around us, and leave it better for generations to follow.