Anti-homeless benches: an act of ignorance

Anti-homeless benches: an act of ignorance

I can guarantee that on my blurry-eyed, 11am walk to lectures I will pass at least one homeless person sat on the streets of Hyde Park. It’s not an uncommon sight in Leeds; in fact it’s hardly a rare sight anywhere in England considering that according to Shelter, around one in every 200 people is currently sleeping rough.

Evidently, it’s an issue that neither local inhabitants nor city councils can ignore. So, you may ask, what sorts of fantastic ideas are being thrown out by the current, thriving, political minds that run our cities?

Bournemouth’s city council and police force recently decided on a wonderful contribution to ending this social problem. By drilling metal bars into the middle of benches located in the city centre, no one is able to sleep on them. Essentially, they’re mimicking that joyless experience of being stuck overnight in an airport where all the seats are lined with those grey, plastic armrests, forcing you to sleep on the freezing cold floor. The glaring difference, however, is that the people being targeted here are not privileged students returning from tanning it up in Barbados: they’re people already on the edge of society that are being pushed even further out by schemes like these. Bournemouth has been the location for a number of anti-homeless schemes, not excluding one-way train tickets out of the city, and loud music being played between midnight and 6am to deter rough sleepers.

Now, I’m not blind to the fact that people have mixed views towards homelessness. I remember going into a vintage shop in town and talking with the owners about the large homeless community here in Leeds. Their strongly worded opinion was that that “they’re all druggies” and should receive no sympathy from hard working folk like themselves. In one sense, I can see their point. Drug abuse is one of the main contributing factors towards homeless in Leeds. Yet, in their black and white outlook they’re completely missing the humanity that’s behind it all.

For a few months in my first year I worked for a charity called Lighthouse. Their aim is to support people suffering from mental health issues, homelessness, addiction, and abuse. Perhaps the most humbling thing I learnt from my time there was that I truly cannot judge people’s past from their present circumstance in life. Homelessness, for example, is far more complex that it is typically perceived: just because you’ve seen one guy with a bottle of Evian filled with a suspiciously cider-colour liquid does not mean this is the case for all people sleeping rough.

This is why I struggle to support Bournemouth’s approach. It addresses a hugely complex issue in an overly simplistic, insensitive and thoroughly ineffective manner. If, by extreme example, a man were beating another man with a bat, you wouldn’t solve it by simply taking away the bat. That would be stupid. You’d be naïvely addressing the consequence, whilst ignoring the root cause. It’s the same here: putting bars on benches doesn’t change, ease or in any way fix someone’s reason for sleeping on the streets.

Although Bournemouth authorities have since removed these bars due to community outcry, reflection on the issue remains to be important. By deterring rough sleepers, a cruel message of “I don’t care” is promoted. That as long as the homeless are not lying on a bench in town, guilt-tripping shoppers as they waltz into Topshop, people don’t care where they are.

This discourse needs change.

Lucy Fardon

Photo credit: Stuart Semple, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bournemouth-council-installs-metal-bars-benches-homeless-rough-sleepers-inhumane-crisis-stuart-a8186121.html