When Le Devoir came out with a story this week noting the presence of anti-homeless spikes outside of a downtown business, the outrage was immediate. Heartless, disgusting, inhuman, dangerous. All sorts of angry comments directed at Archambault, the music and book store who Le Devoir said installed them.
Les pics anti-itinérants sont inacceptables!!!!
— DenisCoderre (@DenisCoderre) June 10, 2014
Mayor Denis Coderre, outraged, promised to have them removed by any means necessary within the day.
As it turns out, Archambault wasn’t at fault, it was the owner of the building. And public pressure resulted in a crew removing the spikes by noon. News outlets discussed the issue, offering comments from the public who again noted their outrage. There was a comparison with a similar thing being done in London, another move that was reversed after public outcry. Or with a similar thing at a McDonald’s two blocks away as seen in Google Street View images taken in 2012, but those had already been removed.
And then everyone went on with their daily lives, going back to ignoring homelessness as an issue. (Though some, like CBC’s The Current, tried to look at the broader problem.)
I don’t want to play all holier-than-thou here, but I wonder why we’re so outraged about this but not about all the other deterrents to homeless people sitting or lying down downtown. And how the people who are so mad about these attempts to deter unwanted people would feel about a homeless person sleeping in front of their homes.
I went around town a bit over a couple of days looking for other examples of this. And while I didn’t find too many spikes outside windows, I found plenty of places that seemed specifically designed to prevent homeless people from lying down on them:
I learned the unique design of this bench at Emilie Gamelin Park the hard way, trying to lie down on it while waiting for the bus one time. It tipped me over and put me on the ground. Thankfully there are no spikes there, but the message was clear: This was specifically engineered to make lying down impossible.
Go around the city and you discover all sorts of bench designs that incorporate obstacles that at first glance seem like armrests but are actually uncomfortable to use that way. Their real function is to deter people from lying down.
And all this is beside all of the bright lights, obnoxious instrumental music, overpowering smells, fences, private security guards and other means used to keep undesirables away from businesses.
It would be easy to say that the business community is intolerant. But these businesses are run by people. And people who run businesses aren’t more evil than those who don’t. They just have more experience with itinerants who scare away clients — i.e. us.
And besides, the bench examples I give above are mostly from institutions, not businesses. These are government-funded organizations that have done this, because they too are tired of dealing with homeless people sleeping on benches and ledges. But nobody is outraged over these, even though they were, like the spikes, specifically designed to be unwelcoming to homeless people.
I get the outrage over “anti-homeless spikes”. It sounds scary, even though the spikes in question weren’t sharp. A person falling face-first into them could be injured, though I suppose the same could be said of someone falling face-first into a concrete ledge.
But let’s focus our outrage constructively. In today’s Gazette, we learn that a program that actually worked to get homeless people into homes was effectively abandoned, apparently because the government prefers the status quo to a radical new approach. And yet, few people seem outraged at this. It can’t easily be summarized in a tweet with a cellphone picture, or prompt immediate emotion with the pan of a television camera in a two-minute report.
So instead of engaging in a war of words with a political rival on a website comment forum that nobody else will bother reading, you can make a donation to a local homeless shelter, or a food bank, or a program that helps people who need it. And during the next election, you can make poverty a priority, asking more questions about a politicians’ plan to ensure a basic standard of living for everyone than you do about hypothetical religious accommodations, language policies or Quebec independence.
Outrage does lead to changes, as this spike story shows. But micro-outrage leads to micro-solutions, and that doesn’t solve anything.
UPDATE (June 20): More on this issue from The Atlantic