Providing services for the homeless is a critical issue for leaders throughout Clark County. But so is the need to facilitate a thriving community for other residents who are drawn to the region’s high standard of livability.
The needs are not mutually exclusive; it is entirely possible for city and county governments to serve the homeless with compassion while not allowing the issue to diminish a region’s quality of life. The desire to balance these goals speaks to the issue of “hostile architecture.”
As detailed in a recent article by Columbian reporter Katy Sword, the city of Vancouver is considering various measures that discourage camping or lingering in public spaces. One example of hostile architecture is park benches with arm rests, which prevent somebody from comfortably lying down and which already are common in Vancouver. Other examples might include landscaping that prevents a homeless person from setting up a tent in a public space. In Seattle, the issue has garnered attention as city officials have placed fencing around areas to discourage encampments, and bike racks under viaducts to prevent settlements from popping up.
Such strategies require thoughtful consideration. As Andy Silver, executive director of Council for the Homeless, said: “I think sometimes we discount the mental aspect of it. One of the worst parts about experiencing homelessness is this feeling of ‘other’ and being different and disconnected from society and left behind. When the community does things like puts bars so people can’t lie down on benches, hostile architecture just reinforces that they’re not part of the community, they’re not wanted here. We want them to go somewhere else even though we can’t articulate where that somewhere is.”
That often is the drawback of discussions about homelessness. While many decry a growing homeless population as blight upon Vancouver, merely hoping that needy people go elsewhere does not qualify as a solution. “Not in my backyard” is neither a compassionate nor effective way for dealing with the issue.
Vancouver has afforded much attention to homelessness in recent years. The fact that voters approved a tax increase to build and preserve affordable housing in 2016 — with 58 percent of the vote — reflects residents’ concern. So, too, do a variety of social services and outreach programs that serve our most vulnerable neighbors.
Approving hostile architecture is not a matter of telling homeless people they are unwelcome, but rather an effort to balance livability with a continuing crisis. Allowing people to live in tents on sidewalks is dangerous to those people, passers-by, and motorists. Allowing people to sleep in doorways is harmful to businesses and repelling for would-be customers. Allowing the homeless to sleep on park benches is a negative reflection upon the region as a whole and diminishes the quality of life for other residents.
The issue is not unique to Vancouver, with cities in many parts of the country struggling to balance the needs of the homeless with the needs of the rest of the populace — a balance that often requires difficult decisions. While officials must continue to promote affordable housing and work to ensure that people facing homelessness are aware of available options, the need for a livable city should remain a primary factor in any decisions.
When it comes to “hostile architecture,” the nomenclature is misleading. Instead of being considered hostile to homeless people, the strategy should be viewed as making cities more inviting for others.