An Acceptable Supremacy: Homelessness & Hostile Architecture

We can't end homelessness until we realize every American has an equal right to public space.

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  • Today we’re discussing how our nation views homeless citizens as “less than.”

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Moving to Colorado is like Birthright for 20-something white people. When I told people I was taking this right of passage, the response was overwhelmingly congratulatory, but sparsed in was a recurring concern: “I hear the homeless problem is out of control!”

Unfortunately, the sentiment that homeless Americans are a detriment to the nation certainly isn’t limited to my place of origin. During an NYC Mayoral debate, Andrew Yang, the first gamer-American to run for major political office, claimed homeless Americans were “fundamentally changing our neighborhoods,” as if Manhattan was a perpetual Purge.

And despite the electoral shellacking this meme-turned-person-turned-politician received, Yang’s deplorable view is far more common than we’d like to admit.  

An Accepted Supremacy

Across their home nation, homeless Americans are talked about only in regards to how they impact “real” Americans. They’re used to:

  • Weigh real estate decisions — “The price is great and the utilities are included, but there’s a lot of homeless in that area.”

  • Consider transportation options — “Let’s take the train. The bus is filled with addicts.”

  • Keep folks from certain areas of town — “Don’t go to main street unless you want to be asked for change.”

It’s as if the totality of their lives — their wants, needs, joys, and pains — are subservient to how I feel when I’m forced to acknowledge their existence.

This is a supremacist mindset: a belief that the “good” Americans, those who can afford rent and aren’t burdened by the mental health, addiction, or abuse conditions that source homelessness, shouldn’t have to rub elbows with the “bad” Americans. And it plagues us — myself included — far more than we care to admit.

Yet Americans don’t see judging someone sleeping in the rain as they do judging someone for being black or a woman, chiefly because we’ve been conditioned that homelessness is a character fault of the individual. 60-or-so years of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality and neoliberal policy have given Americans a mental release valve for our guilt. Thanks to our barbarous individualism, we can walk by a person freezing to death on a cold winter night and say to ourselves: “Not my fault. He should’ve worked harder and said NO to drugs.”

Whether conscious or unconscious, we’ve been corrupted into wanting our homeless brothers and sisters to just disappear. We don’t want to sit next to them on the bus, and we certainly don’t want to look at them on our walk home from the office where we send 3 emails a day for $250k a year. And like any other disease, this supremacy pathogen festers into revolting symptoms. 

Across the U.S., cities and towns have developed architecture specifically designed to punish loitering and resting. Known as hostile architecture, these structures are built with as much consideration for cruelty as location and functionality. Spikes on medians stab the hardened feet of hungry beggars, while benches become bizarre contraptions that making sleep impossible, forcing tired souls to make bed amongst the rats. 

Equal Rights

Whether the result of our supremacy is demeaning looks or medieval torture devices, the notion that housed citizens are more worthy of public space than unhoused citizens is a bastardization of the founding American principle that “all are created equal.” The only antidote to this cancer is an acceptance that homeless Americans have just as much right to buses, benches, and buildings as the rest of us.

Along with cement and steel, hostile architecture is comprised of the wicked belief that the “homeless use case” of sleeping and shelter is subordinate to the “real person use case” of waiting for Uber while sipping a $27 coffee (which should be free).

This is false. Public services and spaces, from grand libraries to crumbling overpasses, are to make life better for any and all citizens, not just the “worthy.”

A park bench is for the people. Whether they need to sit on it for 10 minutes or sleep on it for 10 hours is irrelevant. 

The Wrong Conversation

Writing the previous 700 words has been incredibly depressing, as we’ve only discussed not going out of our way to purposefully worsen already difficult lives. This supremacy is so ingrained in our national psyche that we’re unable to get past wanton cruelty to the only conversation we should be having:

What’s the most effective way to get our fellow Americans the help and homes they need? 

I wish this could have been a nerdy discussion on the intricate economics of funding, scaling, and employing homelessness solutions like universal healthcare and public housing. I’d write about facts and figures and #math until my virginity grew back. But unfortunately, we can’t get to that discussion, as we still need to convince ourselves that the Americans we see struggling to survive every day are worthy of basic dignities.

If you’d like to help, try carrying granola bars to give out as you go about your day. They’re low-cost high-calorie, and perhaps most importantly, handing them out fosters interaction between the housed and the unhoused, a simple reminder to both parties that everyone involved matters.

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    What Am I Reading?

    Someone asked what I read to gain insight and perspective on events. Here’s what I’m high on right now:

    1. The Dachshund TapesA great publication looking at politics and culture from a Marxian perspective. If you like JoeWrote, I suggest you check it out!

    1. The Afghanistan Papers An expansion on the Washington Post’s 2019 expose, this book takes an in-depth look at the flaws and failings of the war.

    2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — A splendidly fun adventure to turn your brain off.