Deterrents Decried

Anti-Homelessness studs to deter rough sleeping installed outside flats in London have prompted outcry...but the real problem isn't the studs.

Anti-homelessness studs installed outside flats in London to deter rough sleeping have prompted outrage…but the studs only point to a more fundamental issue we must address.

The Story

There is a new addition to a set of privately-owned flats on Southwark Bridge Road, London – inch-long metal studs installed into an area of sheltered concrete floor outside the communal entrance. According to the residents, the studs were installed with the intention of deterring homeless people from sleeping rough in the doorway.

“There was a homeless man asleep there about six weeks ago. Then about two weeks ago all of a sudden studs were put up outside. I presume it is to deter homeless people from sleeping there.” – Resident, speaking to The Guardian newspaper.

The picture above provoked a outburst of righteous indignation on Twitter, with comparisons being drawn to metal ‘pigeon spikes’ used to deter birds from roosting in enclosed alcoves; the homeless being considered ‘vermin’.

Homelessness charities say metal studs have been used to deter rough sleepers for more than a decade…and they are far from the only property deterrent being utilised.

Protecting Property

If you were to build a modern-day castle (an appropriate rhetorical, given the title of this blog…) you would have far more property deterrents available to you than mere ramparts, hilly slops and murder holes. As well as the curling, recognisable deterrent of wire, in both barbed and razor design, we have the aforementioned manufactured spikes; these are primarily used for deterring animals considered as vermin, such as pigeons, but larger versions exist to dissuade entry over the top of a fence or wall (a nastier, DIY approach – to prevent access by humans, anyway – involves liberally sprinkling the wall top in question with broken glass). Metal screens are a common sight on empty properties, preventing access by blockading doors, windows, and other portals.

Not all features are structural – for those wishing to stop incoming intruders and insistent incy-wincys from climbing rainwater pipes, you can apply a coat of anti-climb (non-drying) paint to scupper such surreptitious shimmying.

Numerous other installations exist outside of residential properties (both literally and figuratively): the YouTube video The Fakir’s Rest shows a variety of bollards, spikes, segmented benches and alcoves, and even rotating installations to deter rough sleepers from resting in the more prosperous, commercial, and public areas of Paris.

With such a supply of deterrents available there must be a corresponding demand. So what are the arguments for property deterrents, and can any be reasonably applied in the Southwark Bridge Road scenario?

In Defence of Deterrents, In Support of Studs

There are many arguments in defence of property deterrents – as I have notable predilection for verbosity, I shall restrict myself to considering just three:

  • Protect residents from external threats

Anyone who owns or controls property has a legal duty of care to protect people on the property from foreseeable harm; is it possible to argue that the studs were installed by a benevolent landlord seeking to protect their flock from the wolf? It’s unlikely; the studs do not, unlike metal Sitex screens, prevent access to the property; they are sited to the side of the communal entrance. Perhaps to stop someone lurking in the alcove, ready to strike unsuspecting residents during entry? No – the studs are hardly an issue for anyone wearing reasonably sensible footwear, at least not in the short-term.

Aside from not being a reasonable protection against external threats, the owner could find this installation leads to legal action – the duty of care to protect people on the property from foreseeable harm includes unwanted visitors, such as burglars, and the owner could potentially be sued for damages under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1984 if anyone is injured by the studs. While this legal scenario is highly unlikely – as discussed above, the studs have not been placed at an entry-point, which would be a major consideration in such a case – we should also consider the consequences of someone, of any age or disposition, accidentally injuring themselves on the studs, say by falling. In this scenario, the installation not only fails to protect people – it actually harms them.

  • Stop anti-social behaviour

Homelessness and rough sleeping have long been seen as a source of anti-social behaviour, though it is a view often stated and rarely validated beyond anecdotal evidence. Begging is technically a crime, though one that is rarely attended to by the police unless the begging is particularly aggressive (begging does not carry a jail sentence under the Vagrancy Act 1824). Of course not every rough sleeper will engage in begging or for that matter any criminal behaviour. Indeed, the backgrounds of many homeless people seem not to bear any relation to crime: a study by Shelter in Scotland found that anti-social behaviour as a reason for eviction – a common cause of homelessness – applied to only 6% of eviction cases.

In our scenario, there doesn’t seem to have been any historical precedent of anti-social behaviour to provoke the installation of ‘anti-homelessness’ studs. According to the interviewed residents there was only a single instance of rough sleeping recently – if there had been an on-going anti-social problem in that doorway, it wasn’t significant to mention when questioned.

In a wider context property deterrents often restrict people from sitting or lying down…and there is not much anti-social behaviour that can be performed when lying down. Razor wire might dissuade criminal access to a property, but I can’t see how metal studs in the ground would directly someone’s behaviour…unless the ‘anti-social’ thing they were doing was simply lying down, and someone just didn’t like that.

  • Protect the property from people / Protect people from the property

We all appreciate why building sites are fenced off and heavily posted with warning signs – such places are inherently dangerous, and injuries are best avoided by preventing people gaining access in the first place.

This argument holds more water with certain deterrents than others. Having spent most of my housing career in asset management and maintenance, I can absolutely see the value of boarding up long-vacant properties with metal screens (a familiar brand being Sitex), for there are many risks associated with unsecured vacant properties, including but not limited to: metal theft (which costs Britain in excess of £1bn a year); building decay (such as unobserved leaks, mould, or pest infestations); fly tipping (vacant properties are often the target of illegal dumping); and criminal damage. We must consider protection of property, as well as personage.

This argument is more difficult to apply to our anti-homeless studs – the sheltered alcove is not an abandoned property, proves no obvious danger to anyone (if there are structural defects, I doubt drilling metal studs into the ground will rectify the issue…), and does not appear to have anything of worth of value that might be taken. Stanley Woodvine, on his blog sqwabb, recalls a roof covered in concertina razor wire and questions why it was there: the roof gave no access to the building and had no special, distinguishing features.

“What was the prize being protected?” We might ask the same question of the Southwark Bridge Road flats. The answer, it seems, is nothing. The only thing the alcove provided was shelter…and that, I imagine, is the only thing homeless people would want from the area as well.

If we accept that rough sleepers are simply in search of somewhere reasonably dry and sheltered to sleep, and hold no insidious (and, frankly, ridiculous) ulterior motives – such as to purposefully decrease the property value of the flats with their presence – then we must shift our attention from the type of anti-homelessness device implemented and onto a more fundamental concern.

Sparrow on Studs

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” – Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

Over the last three years rough sleeping has risen by 36% nationally and by 75% in London according to Katharine Sacks-Jones, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Crisis, a homeless charity focussing on hidden homelessness. This disturbing rise precipitated by welfare reform, housing shortage, economic downturn, and a volatile jobs market (among many other contributing factors) will have led many landlords and property owners to be confronted with the problem of rough sleeping. But rough sleeping isn’t the problem – it’s a symptom of the socio-economic issues just listed.

You can put a bucket under a leaking pipe to stop the immediate area becoming wet, but that doesn’t stop the leak – you must address the source; the broken pipe. To put it another way, there is a difference in saying…

“Homeless people sleeping rough near these flats is a problem. We need to invest in charities, organisations, and initiatives that help people off the streets and into safe, secure accommodation, thereby removing the problem.”

…as opposed to…

“Homeless people sleeping rough near these flats is a problem. We need to install deterrents and asset protection measures so that homeless people can’t sleep rough here, thereby removing the problem.”

The former addresses the root causes of rough sleeping, and acts to resolve the issue at source – a long term, proactive, and empowering resolution.

The latter addresses only an immediate symptom of rough sleeping, that of it occurring in the vicinity of the flats – a dismissive, passive, and disempowering resolution.

This is why this story is of such importance. It isn’t just about the installation of barbaric-looking metal studs; the owner of the flats could have just as easily installed obstructing pot plants, greenery or sculpture in the alcove. Such measures would probably not have prompted the same indignation from the internet – a flourishing (and thorny…) rose bush is not as easy to deride as ‘inhumane’ as metal spikes are – but if the reason for installation were the same as the metal studs, i.e. keeping rough sleepers out of the area, then these aesthetically appealing measures would still fall foul of the latter scenario described above: they would exist solely to move the problem of homelessness elsewhere, rather than helping resolve the underlying issues that cause rough sleeping in the first place.

A rose bush, by any other name, would smell just as wrong.

Conclusion

The flats on Southwark Bridge Road are privately owned, and while a spokeswoman for Southwark council has said the authority would look into any official complaints, they have also said there is little it can do unless the studs are in breach of planning regulations.

Regardless of how the local authority (are able to) act, the picture that started this article has brought to attention the attitude of some property owners to rough sleepers, and the underlying problem of homelessness. Homelessness is often a hidden issue; these inch-high metal studs have, inadvertently, highlighted something that we – yes, we, as in you and me – often choose to overlook. And while we can choose to look away again, we should perhaps invest our energies in facing the facts about homelessness with honesty as brutal as the studs themselves, and work to address the underlying causes. Anything less just delays the immediate consequences of homelessness, shifting – as these anti-homelessness deterrents do – the problem elsewhere, for someone else to deal with.

The metal studs at the Southwark Bridge Road flats are not just deterring rough sleeping; they’re also deterring a meaningful resolution to the underlying causes of rough sleeping. To finish Captain Sparrow’s observation:

“Do you understand?”

References

Anti-homeless studs at London residential block prompt uproar, The Guardian, Online: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/07/anti-homeless-studs-london-block-uproar, Available: June 2014

Anti-climb measures for fences and walls, The Crime Prevention Website, Online: http://thecrimepreventionwebsite.com/garden-boundaries-fences-and-defensive-plants/616/anticlimb-measures-for-fences-and-walls/, Available: June 2014

Begging, Politics.co.uk, Online: http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/begging, Available: June 2014

Council urged to act over ‘inhumane’ use of spikes to deter homeless, The Guardian, Online: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/08/metal-spikes-london-flats-homeless?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter, Available: June 2014

Homelessness Statistics, Shelter, Online: https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=rough%20sleeping%20a%20crime, Available: June 2014

Oh, razor wire. How’s that working out?, sqwabb.wordpress.com (October 2013), Online: http://sqwabb.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/oh-razor-wire-hows-that-working-out/, Available: June 2014

The Fakir’s Rest, YouTube, Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qv3M7FxJqtM#t=227, Available: June 2014

Using Barbed Wire, Glass and Other Intruder Prevention Methods, ProtectingYourself.com, Online: http://www.protectingyourself.co.uk/using-barbed-wire-glass-intruder-prevention-methods.html, Available: June 2014

Vacant Property Security Risks, Oaksure Property Protection, Online: http://www.oaksurepropertyprotection.com/need-security/vacant-property-security, Available: June 2014

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on michalarudman and commented:
    I do understand. This blog highlights the issues I was having with the studs and the reaction to them on twitter and Facebook. Quite rightly it was met with revulsion but after a bit I did start to think that perhaps we were angry with the studs as a symptom rather than looking at the cause.perhaps because the cause is much more difficult to sort out. It’s 2014, people shouldn’t be desperate enough to need to seek shelter in doorways. We need to look beyond the studs and ask why this is still the case. Why aren’t we building enough affordable homes? Are there enough hostel places, accessible accommodation? The policy is the bad guy here,not the studs. Perhaps we would help more people if we questioned that? Great post, a lot of food for thought.

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