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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


It's in the news. It's on Twitter. It's on Facebook - that short spikes have been set into the ground outside a block of flats in London to stop people sleeping there. Everyone is cross, horrified, shocked, offended - except, it seems, for me.

I once slept in a doorway.

I'd arrived in Edinburgh in the middle of the night. There wasn't a connecting train till morning. I couldn't sleep on a bench because chairs for waiting passengers were in circles - to stop people sleeping on them. I'd once or twice slept on a bench at Kings Cross station - again between trains. It wasn't restful. Men kept turning up and asking me to come behind the station. Even to go home with them. In Edinburgh I couldn't lie down - and there was a man lurking.

I decided to go for a walk, thinking I'd shake him off. But he followed. What to do?

A friend lived in a basement flat. I marched confidently to his steps and went down them into the little entrance space, hoping the man following would assume I lived there. It worked. I put a note through the letterbox telling my friend I was there in case he was startled when he opened the door next day, got out my sleeping bag, laid it on the concrete and went to sleep in his doorway. By the morning, I'd gone. If he'd had studs there, I wouldn't have been able to lie down. I'd have wandered the streets or hung around in the station, fending off men wanting to cart me away.

So why do I think studs are a good idea?

Because I've also lived in a block of flats where glue-sniffing children hung out in the indoor-bin area; where people piled freebie newspapers on landings between floors and set them on fire; where guests were sometimes pelted with stones while they waited for me to answer the intercom and let them in; where a neighbour turned up naked at my doorway late at night. If we'd had homeless people sleeping there too - well, I'd have been un-nerved.

I've known a lot of homeless people in my time; not people stuck for somewhere to go between trains: people who are homeless because they drink too much to sustain a more conventional, settled life. I used to have a friend who'd been so messed up by war he was too unpredictable, too suddenly violent, to share a flat with others. Much depends on the context. If you get to know people when they are not drunk - or happen to get on well with someone whom no-one else likes . . . you might think it's anti-social, unkind to 'the poor' to put studs in a doorway so they can't lie down to sleep.

But I don't. I wouldn't want somebody so messed up by the violence in his own life to be lying in an alcove by the entrance to my home. I wouldn't want anyone lurking there when they are drunk. I have been grabbed in dark streets, even in city centres. Exposed to in parks. But that is in the past. For many years now I've lived a sheltered, secluded, isolated life. With epilepsy I cannot risk independence in the way I used to. With children, I need more possessions - possessions I wouldn't want anyone to take away. I've not wanted to give my family the company of people of uncertain temperament in our own home. I no longer invite strangers in.

When you are weak, when you can't run, when you don't have the physical or emotional energy to defuse situations - when you are these things - you don't even like children in your street banging on the door and running away. It can be deeply startling.

These studs bring us up with a start. Why are we so cruel as a society that we want to stop people taking shelter in doorways? It is un-nerving to see them. But what I'm not clear about (though I might be if I investigated further so I might be all wrong in this) is how many of those who are shocked by these anti-sleeping spikes really know what they are talking about. How well do they know fear? Do they think they could interview those who want to sleep in alcoves by their doors and choose their outside neighbours?

Well, that's not how it works. It's random who you get. It might be some inoffensive woman waiting between trains. Or it might not.


Pearl said...

I have to agree with you.

I've come across the encampments of the homeless under trees in the park across the street from me, piles of bottles (broken and otherwise), discarded and filthy socks. I can't imagine having to step over someone...

It's a problem in cities, and I'm not unsympathetic, but often those who express the most outrage at how a society chooses to deal with the problem of homelessness are those furthest removed from its seamier aspects.


Geo. said...

Frankly, the spikes don't look all that intimidating. Perhaps if they were closer together and sharp they'd be an effective deterrent.

Amanda Hill said...

There was a great discussion of this issue on CBC yesterday. The thing I took away from it is that you have to have support in place to help people who are homeless before you employ deterrents. Deterrents on their own are not going to solve anything.

linniew said...

You've had some very very unhappy experiences Esther, and I am so sorry. But were the people/children/followers necessarily homeless? Some of the most threatening people are not. Also, addiction is a disease and needs treatment. I agree with Amanda's comment I'm afraid.

Val , Kate, The Cute Kitten ,Razzy, Kepsey,Darwin ,Charon and Echo. said...

If every person who disapproved of such a strategy personally took some positive action to alleviate the problem, then I would have more sympathy with their point of view. It is easy to be sympathetic and tolerant when the problem is theoretical to you. When you live in an area where homeless does not necessarily mean nicely behaved person fallen on hard times but is sordid, unpleasant and downright threatening then you tend to take a different view.