Do Homeless People Need Protection from Us?

violence against homeless people

Troubling Trends: Violence Against Homeless People and Hostile Architecture

How safe do you feel? Does your home have an alarm system? Your car?

For many, these kind of safety precautions are a given—an unfortunate reality of the times we live in. And more often than not, the very things we fear, real or imagined, come from without. We, the housed, need protection from those not, or so goes the logic.

However, reality does not bear out these fears. As an LA Times op-ed piece stated, perhaps the homeless need protection from us. Let’s take a look at a couple of troubling trends that flip the script on widely held notions about who are the real aggressors: personal violence and hostile architecture.

A History of Violence

Although it doesn’t gain much traction in the media, violence against homeless individuals is depressingly frequent and pervasive. Notice some events that transpired during a two-month period in 2018.

California, historically a bastion of homelessness (and numbers are on the rise), witnessed a spate of violence. Four men were killed and four others seriously injured during the calendar month of September 2018. A 47-year-old Houston man, wielding a baseball bat and bolt cutters in the series of attacks, was charged with three counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder. The victims were attacked while sleeping outdoors. A few days later, two homeless people were doused with gasoline and bleach, and then burned with acid.

Three homeless people were killed a month earlier while sleeping near Interstate 25 in Colorado. A 38-year-old man shot them to death.

August 2018 also saw the recovery of the body of a 66-year-old homeless man. He had been living in a camp along Interstate 35 in Texas. The death was later ruled as a homicide.

Statistics show this especially bloody two-month stretch may be more aberration than rule. But violence against homeless people certainly isn’t rare.

Social awareness website states that from 1999-2011, “the National Coalition for the Homeless has documented 1,289 acts of violence against homeless individuals by housed perpetrators” across the US. In the NCH’s assessment, the crimes are believed to be motivated by two main factors: bias against homeless people coupled with just how easy it is to target them. Violent encounters ran the gamut from beatings and rapes to setting people on fire to murder.

Who really needs protection here?

Is This Seat Taken?

A more subtle form of discrimination against homeless individuals is found in an increasingly popular trend of hostile architecture. Urban buildings are incorporating design to prevent loitering, sleeping, and general vagabond-ism.

You’ve likely seen these elements before. Inconspicuous additions like large clusters of jagged rocks along walkways, armrests on benches to block people from lying, and planters that obstruct sheltered space, to more obtuse examples like slanted benches, nubbins, and spikes. That’s right. The same anti-roosting technology once used as a form of animal control is now being added to building ledges to prevent sitters and liers down.

Meenakshi Mannoe, a community educator that works in Vancouver, Canada, links hostile architecture with anti-homelessness. “The general public is almost trained to see people who rely on public space as a nuisance, an eyesore,” she states. According to Mannoe, these defensive architectural elements reinforce negative stigma.

Andy Yan, a director at a Vancouver-area university, describes hostile architecture as misdirected and damaging. “You have somebody facing profound physical, social and mental challenges, and you’re solving it through a decorative hack. It’s a response to a challenge that actually isn’t just about public space. It’s about the issue of affordable housing.”

Leave it to to provide us with the fundamental issue of this design trend: “The problem with hostile architecture is that it doesn’t aim to address the crisis of homelessness. All it achieves is making life harder for those already struggling. Forcing people to find other places to sleep won’t solve the issue of homelessness.”

Find a Home Here

Bucking the hostile architecture trend, an advertising company from Vancouver (aka Rain City) designed a campaign, which installed seven modified bus benches, some featuring rain covers. Fitting for Rain City. Slogans such as FIND A HOME HERE and FIND SHELTER HERE adorned the benches. Three of them had glow-in-the-dark ink inviting the homeless to take shelter at night with the words THIS IS A BEDROOM.

Rain City Housing’s ‘friendly architecture’ installation gained traction online, providing a refreshing antithesis to hostile architecture the world over. Here’s hoping that other cities follow suit.

Micah Bertoli

Micah Bertoli


Micah Bertoli is a Medical Laboratory Technologist and freelance writer. He is passionate about volunteer work, spending much time helping displaced people settle into their new environments.

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