belongings of a homeless person
Photo: Hauke Christian Dittrich / dpa
Mr H. was an elderly gentleman who fell through the social safety net.
After a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body, with no family or friends to help him, he ended up on the streets with no financial resources, moving from town to town without a permanent home.
My mother had struck up a conversation with him on a park bench that was his current home.
She told me about him - and so I spoke to him one day and got to know him.
From this conversation an acquaintance developed, maybe even a fleeting friendship, we talked regularly about all sorts of things.
When we first met, he had just escaped from a men's dorm where he had been staying for some time.
He definitely didn't want to go back there because, according to his own statement, he had been beaten up and robbed.
Of his recounting of his daily challenges, one angry tirade stood out in my mind:
“Just being allowed to be somewhere and being left alone.
Just lie down.
Why is that no longer possible?” His frustration referred to so-called “defensive architecture”, as the design of all those elements and buildings in public space is euphemistically called, which does not allow the homeless to settle there for long periods of time;
For example, park benches that you can sit on, but shouldn't lie down on.
For this reason, the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe installed new armrests in the middle of the waiting benches in underground stations in 2020, for example.
There are deliberately wavy parklets on Friedrichstraße that make lying down impossible;
but also circular and S-shaped seats, as we see them in inner cities, should prevent longer stays.
"The whole world doesn't care about me, the authorities don't care about me, the pedestrians don't care about me, but suddenly I'm so important that I even get specially designed benches?" Mr. H. said ironically.
"Doesn't the city have any other problems than us bums?"
Homelessness isn't just architectural
Once you start paying attention, it's shocking how often architecture is used to make it as difficult as possible for people like him to be in public space.
Stones were laid under bridges in Düsseldorf so that the homeless could not sleep there;
or a few years ago in Berlin Moabit for 400,000 euros placed so-called "seated pebbles".
The aim of this exclusion, which incidentally is also often intended to keep drug addicts and young people away, is the alleged improvement in the so-called quality of stay, the creation of an alleged sense of security and general social tidiness.
The hostility toward the homeless is not just architectural.
In some places, music is also used to spoil the stay of unwanted people.
At Stuttgart Central Station, for example, homeless people were pushed out of the underpasses by playing classical compositions - until activists filled the loudspeakers with concrete - with the city of Stuttgart and the Stuttgart tramway declaring that they had nothing to do with the speakers.
In 2018, Deutsche Bahn wanted to play atonal music to the homeless in Berlin's Hermannstraße station to prevent them from sleeping.
Atonal music - no offense - sounds like the reversed version of strenuous music;
imagine surrealism for the ears.
And so , after protests and public criticism , Deutsche Bahn distanced itself from this project .
The problem of defensive architecture
Hostile architecture is a material response to a social phenomenon perceived as a nuisance by authorities or institutions.
Now there are two ways to reduce the presence of homeless people in public spaces: either you fight the homelessness - or you fight the homeless.
The latter seems to be the simpler solution.
Because the reasons for homelessness are an ineffective social system, a dysfunctional economy and the fragility of the welfare system, which depends on the willingness of citizens to donate, such as in the case of the voluntary food banks.
This in combination with individual strokes of fate and threats - such as illness, job loss, separation or violence within their own four walls - mean that people live on the streets here.
These are the areas where policy needs to be addressed to tackle the root causes of homelessness and to prevent people like Mr H from needing a bench to sleep in in the first place.
Or one simply hides the visible witnesses of wrong political decisions under the carpet of an apparently orderly cityscape.
In defensive architecture one recognizes how public space, as a place of community spirit that actually belongs and is entitled to everyone, gives way to the educational, controlled space of the economy.
Because one fear seems to be that the sight of misery will scare away customers and consumers could feel harassed or even threatened in their shopping experience.
The existence of anti-homeless architecture reminds us that in terms of urban planning, we are not in a spatial design that is supposed to enable inclusive citizenship.
As the architectural sociologist Jan Wehrheim explains in his analysis »The monitored city: security, segregation and exclusion«, there is »a general competition about how, when, for what purpose and who can use a space .
The listed forms of demarcation or dominance” – for example, spikes, interrupted benches, music – “serve to represent the space beyond the time of personal presence as a space that is occupied.”
The Berlin artist Fabian Brunsing has designed a park bench with spikes on the seat, which are retracted as soon as money is thrown into the attached coin box.
His furniture is to be understood as a scathing criticism of »defensive architecture« and illustrates the question: Who has more rights to public space?
And what about those who have to live there?
Mr. H. compensated for the absence of social ties with the few spatial ties that he developed, but which were regularly severed, whether due to new architecture or authorities who had sleeping places vacated.
It is an existence of eternal provisionality.
What he called "home" was ever-changing, and as such was not a place, but a pattern of rituals through which he organized his day.
And it was the material conditions that his confrontational environment afforded him.
He worked with what he got to make life reasonably livable: eating leftovers on tablets in fast food restaurants or from garbage cans;
public toilets that were free;
bathing in the river – and most importantly: places to sleep in order to be fit enough for the next day full of adversity.
So "being at home" was never a static state, but always a dynamic, daily result of his efforts to survive.
»Just being« is not intended for someone like him in urban areas.