On Saturday, a guy named Andrew Horton from Surrey tweeted a picture of some spikes that had been put on the pavement outside some luxury flats in Southwark, to stop homeless people from sleeping there. The spikes aren't anything particularly new, or much different to the armrests that councils put on park benches to stop people sleeping on them. Nevertheless, they touched a nerve and the picture set off a Twitter-storm.
Maybe there was something kind of Medieval about the ground being made into a kind of torture device for anyone unfortunate enough to need to use it as a bed. A lot of people likened the spikes to the ones that are used to stop pigeons sitting on walls and shitting everywhere. Horton's original tweet concluded, "The destitute now considered vermin". Even London Mayor Boris Johnson described the spikes as, “ugly, self-defeating and stupid” – and no, he wasn't having another pop at David Cameron (ayoooooo).
Anyway, a protest gathered outside the luxury flats yesterday to call for the removal of the spikes. As per usual, the wave of outraged RTs on Twitter didn't really translate into the kind of mob that would worry anyone at all. There were about six or seven people there, and a larger number of journalists. I was one of them, heading over to pick the brains of the protesters.
Hi, why are you protesting about the spikes?
Vinnie (who did not want to be photographed): I’m here showing support. Some of my friends are homeless and I’ve been homeless before. I’ve slept on the street and squatted. It’s just another attack on the poor, it’s just another kick in the face to people who are down and out, and I’m here to show this is unacceptable – enough.
When do you reckon they’ll be removed?
There’s a few lads with hammers and chisels who’ll do the job.
Hi Mark, if this is private property, why should the owners not be allowed to put spikes there?
Mark: Private property, in my opinion, is behind the doors – not on the street. It’s not really bothering anyone if they’re sleeping in the door – it’s just for a night. What do these spikes say about a person?
Have you heard of any other similar tactics used in London?
In the City of London there are a lot of spikes to stop people from sitting, I heard about a woman shaking with crutches and she couldn’t sit down. They’re obviously paranoid. It’s a disgrace. I got pneunomia in both lungs and spent two weeks in hospital, and once you get ill it’s a slippery slope. You look for easy ways out.
There is help for people who need accommodation, though.
Yeah, but once you go into a hostel, that can be a bad environment. There’s a lot of people that have problems, and monkey see, monkey do. For me, I’d rather sleep in empty buildings than go into those types of places.
Hi, so why are you here today?
Gary: The damn spikes. We want the spikes removed. Somebody’s got to bed there tonight. You’ll harm yourself on those blimmin’ things. I used to be on the streets.
Do you think it sends a bad message?
Yeah, it’s getting really bad – on Regent Street there’s more of them.
What brings you here to the protest?
Peter John, Labour Party councillor and Leader of Southwark Council: I’m here to express my dissatisfaction with the spikes. There are no powers I can exercise in order to get rid of the spikes, it’s on private land. So it’s about using our soft power and protesting. I’m afraid I’m advised here that there’s nothing we can do. But there are a million and one solutions to stop rough sleeping. It’s the aggression of these spikes sticking out of the ground – I mean, just puts some plants there!
So you're OK with blocking rough sleepers in principle?
I can understand why people would want to do this, but I completely disagree with the spikes.
You'd support them if they'd put plant pots there instead?
I think so, yeah – if residents have got a concern, then they can find a solution. But it's the aggression of these that I find disturbing.
Yeah, plants would look miles better. Thanks John.