The Homelessness Solution Based on Ignorance

Anti-homeless architecture isn’t a solution. It just pushes the problem out of sight.

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By Andy Lin

After a long day of walking, you find an empty seat in a bustling city. But every public bench seems to poke and prod with its uneven surfaces and useless armrests, so much that all you can think about is how much of a design failure it is. The fact that sitting on any bench seems to be more uncomfortable than standing isn’t an unfortunate coincidence, but rather the goal. Hostile architecture, or anti-homeless architecture, is a form of urban design that uses its structure to restrict spaces. In the case of benches, the goal is to prevent people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. Hostile architecture doesn’t solve any problems and instead uses up money that could be spent to directly help people experiencing homelessness.

Some examples of hostile architecture include armrests on a bench to stop a person from lying down, spikes on a platform to prevent people from sitting, and benches sloped at just the right angle to make them uncomfortable to sit on. Others can be more harmful, such as sprinklers that are constantly on, which can damage property and waste water. Some cities have installed speakers playing high-pitched noises under bridges, contributing to an increase in noise pollution. There is a park in China where coins have to be inserted into benches in order to lower the spikes on them for a certain amount of time. One of the most damaging forms of hostile architecture is the apparent lack of public restrooms. Most establishments require visitors to make a purchase in order to use the restroom, leading people with no money without a restroom. Often, their only alternative is public urination, which is illegal.

People experiencing homelessness often face extremely dangerous circumstances, further fueled by the lack of temporary housing. Mayor Eric Adams has supported sweeps during which city officials gather and throw out belongings from homeless encampments. These efforts alone have led to lawsuits in response to the loss of valuable and irreplaceable objects. In addition to money being spent on hostile architecture, there is the cost of arrests and lawsuits. Expenses for these lawsuits are made up of basic lawyer bills and the extra bills that come when the court usually finds the government in the wrong. In a television interview, Adams commented that it’s unacceptable for people to live in cardboard boxes. While the sentiment expressed in Adams’s statement may be accurate, simply removing homeless people from the streets without sufficient support isn’t an effective solution. In the past, politicians have attempted to clear out the subways by offering alternative shelters. However, crowded shelters are often more dangerous than a subway, which acts as one of the few places to stay warm during the winter.

This February, Adams remarked that people experiencing homelessness just don’t trust the system. This statement seems to put the blame on people experiencing homelessness for not being trusting, but the system hasn’t given examples of reasons they should be trusted. Instead, the system has contributed to a significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. The New York City homeless shelter population has more than doubled since the 1980s. While Adams has made some strides in the correct direction, he is nowhere near making a difference in the homelessness problem. To criminalize a person experiencing homelessness, it costs taxpayers more than twice as much as to provide them with supportive housing. The MTA introduced in 2017 an Enhanced Solution Initiative, which cost $74 million and included placing leaning bars where benches used to be.

From a purely financial perspective, the best solution is to directly help people experiencing homelessness instead of spending money on hostile architecture. Even if the short term cost of hostile architecture is cheaper, the expenses of arrests and lawsuits will add up over the years and end up costing significantly more than a few years of higher taxes that can help solve the issue. After the issue begins to subside, the budget can be lowered, and money can be spent keeping people off the streets instead of getting them.

Many solutions to homelessness have been offered over the years, such as lowering the cost of housing, increasing income, and providing extra support for those at higher risk, but none of these options seem to be sufficient. While there may not be one working solution for a while, the simplest but most effective step would be to increase the scale of all of the previous solutions. Housing is provided, just not nearly enough. People do try to spread awareness, but not enough people know about the problem, partly due to the fact that so much money is spent on homeless architecture and the prosecution of people experiencing homelessness. The goal for many years has been to hide this major issue instead of truly confronting it. Less awareness leads to less people advocating for people experiencing homelessness, and that aspect is the main thing that needs to change in order to make a difference.