The City of Cape Town, yours, ours, everybody’s is filled with space, yet most people won't stop to think how much of that space is designed to control them. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency/ANA.
The City of Cape Town, yours, ours, everybody’s is filled with space, yet most people won't stop to think how much of that space is designed to control them. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency/ANA.

Hostility towards Cape Town’s homeless is by design

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 24, 2021

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by Carlos Mesquita

As I write this column, I feel the same sadness I felt earlier in the week on a visit to Sea Point. Not only Sea Point mind you, throughout this past week wherever I went into Cape Town city centre, I saw signs of hostile architecture.

You may wonder what I am on about because before ending up homeless on the streets, I had never once taken note of these eyesores, yet they were always there.

But I did become homeless and I did sleep roughly on the streets for five years. These days I become aware of any new such architecture quickly and by the looks of it popping up all over the place in different shapes and sizes, tell me that the companies involved in creating these “pieces de resistance” must be coining it.

And you, the taxpayer is paying for these beauties, not only in terms of their erection in public spaces but also yet another cost of homelessness.

The City of Cape Town, yours, ours, everybody’s is filled with space, yet most people won't stop to think how much of that space is designed to control them.

Benches in the Company's Gardens were among the most popular attractions for young lovers a few years ago. Unfortunately today, those hidden, private benches are no more.

Outdoor furniture of any kind determines whether you are invited to rest anywhere, and how you rest.

Angled perches at bus stops discourage hanging out there too long. Metal spikes on ledges and doorways scream “do not sit”, “do not stay, go away”.

Next time you drive up towards the mountain and you go past the houses on either side of the road just look around you and see if you find one outside wall that is lower than your abdomen in height that you would be able to rest or sit on for a couple of minutes to catch your breath, should you have been jogging and needed a couple of minutes rest.

I will answer it for you, yes the wall is still there. Only now the wall seems to have been taken over by rows of metal spikes, then it’s the benches you can’t sit on, to railings; there are a few other phrases/for these structures –anti-homeless architecture, exclusionary design, or defensive architecture.

The first word precludes some form of attack, the second refers to structures and the environment. But there is nothing defensive about structures like this.

Laying these metal studs outside a property sends out a message and it's a downright aggressive message and an unfriendly one.

The spikes on ledges, says that people - regardless of whether they have homes or not, are not welcome. Putting spikes up like this doesn't address the issues of inequality and poverty – it just pushes them away from your immediate vision, so you don't have to look at them.

The spikes on ledges are placed there to deter “errant sitting”, the ones in doorways are to deter errant standing or sleeping.

So what if it’s raining? It's your fault for not bringing your umbrella.

So what if you can't walk far and your bags are heavy? It’s your fault for not being able to afford a car.

So what if you can’t afford a bed for the night? It’s your fault for being homeless.

The urban landscape is turning into a victim-blaming battleground for haves and have-nots. Now we have “the friends of Riebeek Park” wanting to fence up the mountain because of the homeless/ criminals, I don’t know which because they see them as one and the same!

Why can they not design a friendlier, more inclusive space where misfortunes of circumstance such as homelessness aren’t blamed?

All you are doing is training up an army - some of us will kick and scream, others will be by the ringside healing the wounded. And the rest? We will be coming up with new ways of undermining the violence raining down on us from above. We will be digging the tunnels and laying a path for a better and ultra-civil society where there won’t be a deserving or undeserving divide … just people, a planet and the mutual care of both.

* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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