“Homeless spikes” are gone — but what about Montreal’s other homeless deterrents?

Scars on the concrete outside a window of Archambault on Berri St., where spikes had been installed to deter people from sitting or lying down there.

Scars on the concrete outside a window of Archambault on Berri St., where spikes had been installed to deter people from sitting or lying down there.

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.

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.

Anti-sitting spikes were also installed — and then removed — at McDonald's at Ste-Catherine and St-Christophe.

Anti-sitting spikes were also installed — and then removed — at McDonald’s at Ste-Catherine and St-Christophe.

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.

Other examples

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:

A bench at Émilie Gamelin Park pivots at the centre, designed to throw anyone who tries to lie on it to the ground.

A bench at Émilie Gamelin Park pivots at the centre, designed to throw anyone who tries to lie on it to the ground.

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

8 thoughts on ““Homeless spikes” are gone — but what about Montreal’s other homeless deterrents?

  1. Media Man

    Excellent story Steve, these spikes were there it ha been reported for a few years and nobody said anything until Le Devoir did its thing. I understand businesses doing this to keep their customers..I myself have been victim of incidents at a Downtown burger King, complained to the manager on duty and did nothing, Haven’t been there since, like 4-5 years ago.

    Mayor Coderre’s bit was just showmanship, why not do his thing before, but only did this because of social media, he’s more interested in getting more drunks until 6 am and making statements by hanging LGBT flags at City Hall for the Olympics, as if that would change anything, but didn’t see fit to hang the actual Olympic flag in support of all Canadian Athletes in Sochi who worked 4 hard years for that one shining moment. !!

  2. Lorne

    Homeless people should be encouraged and helped to get to shelters because it is not a good idea for them to just lie down in busy places where people are walking, to get some sleep.

  3. emdx

    Businesses have no business catering to robineux; their business is to bring in the bacon.

    It’s the government’s business to cater to the robineux, because it’s unprofitable. This goes with the mantra of privatizing profits, and socializing losses of the new, improved, liberal economy.

  4. Dilbert

    Great story, but it’s complaining about the type of bandaids used to deal with a giant gaping wound. If you don’t address the bigger issue, you will never find a solution.

    The real issue is that the definition used to define if someone has a mental health issue that makes them incapable of taking care of themselves has been changed in the last 10-20 years. In the past, a homeless person sleeping on the street, talking to themselves, whatever their issue would be picked up and evaluated, and often put into care by the government to deal with their (obvious) issues. That has changed, so much so that itinerants are a part of the city landscape now. Many of the downtown parks and areas are rendered useless to the public because of the people who “live” there now. Just having an obvious mental issue, being homeless, even being violent or publicly intoxicated at all times is not anything that the police and authoroties feel the urge to address anymore.

    Homeless spikes and modified benches are all about trying to keep control of the spaces, so that the public can enjoy them without having to step over a sleeping rubbie to do so. It’s understandable, it’s really another form of rebellion against the State, which has abdicated it’s responsibilities to care for those who clearly cannot care for themselves.

    Shelters are not an answer, they are often a contributing cause (similar to welfare payments) which provide just enough for these people to maintain their chosen pitiful lifestyle. Many of the homeless won’t go because of fights, violence, and theft that happens there – as a result of the mentally ill homeless getting in. See the above comment regarding the state abdicating it’s responsibility.

    Getting upset about “homeless spikes” is just missing the point. As a society, we shouldn’t have the issue to start with. Don’t get upset with people trying to go NIMBY and move the problem away from their private property.

  5. Kevin

    Is there any society that has socialized profits and privatized losses that succeeded for any length of time?

    There are easy fixes for homelessness and mental illness that our society could take. In fact they were the norm until WWII, but they stopped because they also hid abuses that were exposed in the 50s and 60s.

  6. Mario D.

    Very good report mister Steve. This is what reporting is all about , showing the thruth ,the real big picture and not just what makes the top story of the day.
    Mayor Coderre is the perfect candidate for photo opps like that i admit but he seems to be genuinly concerned with the homeless in Montreal. Remains to see if he will be able to do something to help them cause it`s not about parking them in a shelter and sometimes not a question of money .

    I guess help would be welcomed for some that saw their world crumble but this is not the only reason why people end up sleeping on a park bench. Whatever the reason anyway those people need a helping hand and often do not have the courage or do not know where to go to get back on their feet. Quite often though mental illness is more than getting help and pills …

    Let`s just see what mayor Coderre does really to lead the way when there are no cameras…

  7. Bill Lee

    Though some of the bars, etc. on smooth benches and other such surfaces are also designed to keep skateboarders “riding the edge”
    Often they are in the form of metal plugs set in the edge. No sliding/skating down that edge or railing.

  8. CD

    When I moved from Montreal to another town, I at first was taken aback by anti-homeless spikes, but now I must admit I don’t even notice them anymore. Simply stated, the places that don’t have either those things or a locked gate on their stoops are welcomed with garbage and broken bottles every morning.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *