The Creative and Cruel Ways People Make Life Hell for the Homeless

It's not just playing "Baby Shark" over and over.
July 19, 2019, 10:00am
(Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It seemed like a move out of a CIA torture handbook: The city of Palm Beach, Florida, resorted to blasting annoying kids' tunes, including "Baby Shark," to discourage homeless people from sleeping in a fancy waterfront pavilion.

But Palm Beach, which has been getting slammed for the policy this week, can't take all the credit for what might appear to be anti-homeless innovation. City governments, private businesses, and individual entrepreneurs across America have been using loud music—intentionally or otherwise—to discourage loitering or deter sidewalk sleepers (or both) for years. Spaces like the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, a San Francisco Burger King, and a Modesto, California, 7-11 (among other locations of that franchise) have been accused of leaning on classical music to that end. Some venues have played straight-up disturbing high-pitched tones in what critics said was an even-less disguised policy of driving those in search of sleep away.


The music is part of a larger, insidious pattern, advocates for the homeless say. As VICE reported last month, "hostile architecture" is comprised of seemingly innocuous urban designs that actually serve to foil homeless populations looking for places to sleep or rest. Think dividers in benches, spikes on fences, or rocks or statues placed in sheltered nooks. Even horticulture can be part of the plan: Last week, the LA Times reported business owners were increasingly restoring to tactics like planting cactuses and thorny bushes as the city's homeless population soared.

Architecture and design is one thing. But active measures like loud music do more than just passively involve citizens—and point to how routinized antipathy toward the homeless isn't just built into the design of spaces, but engrained in the fabric of day-to-day life.

"Policies like these are an effort to drive people away [but also] an effort to cover up visible poverty," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). "It's a way to push people out of sight, and it's not a good response."

Among other, non-musical tactics, businesses have sometimes turned to spraying water on people sleeping on sidewalks. The Strand bookstore, an iconic New York City landmark, got flak from local press in 2013 for allegedly turning on its awning sprinklers to deter the homeless. One San Francisco church regularly doused people sleeping around the building for years—at least until it drew media attention.


Employing aggressive measures—architectural, auditory, or otherwise—against homelessness is nothing new, but the practice has come under more scrutiny as cities across the country weather housing crises and cuts in services for the poor. As wealthy residents from San Francisco to Boston use money and political action to block affordable housing projects and emergency shelters in their neighborhoods, cities are also responding by upping the number of ways to criminalize homeless people. One study from the NHLCP found that among 187 analyzed cities, the number with blanket anti-camping policies on the books rose 69 percent between 2006 and 2016, while the number with regulations on camping in public spaces rose about 50 percent.

There are even laws against helping homeless people eat: a study from the National Coalition for the Homeless found that between 2013 and 2014 alone, 21 cities took action to pass laws or other measures restricting food-sharing. Last year, 12 volunteers, including a 14-year-old, were charged with misdemeanors in California while handing out food and toiletries in a public park, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, cops cited a 90-year-old World War II veteran twice in one week in 2014 for dishing out hot meals to the homeless. "If you want the bears to go away, don't feed the bears," a Cincinnati police captain said in 2013 of that city's ordinance.

Laws like these show that cities are increasingly focused on "covering up a problem rather than solving it," said Foscarinis, who argued many of these same localities are not offering adequate emergency housing or permanent shelter for their homeless populations.

She added that city and business policies are also influencing how private citizens act, with NLCHP growing "increasingly aware" of incidents in which people choose to attack the homeless—by verbally harassing them, pouring water on them, or assaulting them physically. "These trends feed on each other," Foscarinis said. "[Citizens] see city action that treats people as less than human, as refuse to be swept away."

We may be passing on this bad behavior to our technology. A San Francisco animal shelter faced backlash in 2017 for appearing to use its security robot to chase away homeless people. While the city has limited the use of robots on sidewalks, a model of robot from the same company was later adopted by both Los Angeles and New York City to patrol public spaces. The evolution of hostile architecture continues.

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