Image via Flickr user chaircrusher.
You’re dragging yourself around downtown, barely awake and with a slashed-up foot. You need to sit, to rest, even to sleep, but the crowds just keep coming and you know from experience that they’ll kick you if you’re in their way. You see a little corner, a quiet nook, and with bitter relief you imagine yourself recuperating there. But it’s impossible. Somebody has installed a device, some kind of metal object, and what appeared to be a calm cranny is in fact a nest of spikes. In Canada, until very recently, only pigeons experienced such things.
That changed last week, when a building on Montreal’s Berri Square installed rows of spiked metal bars at its base. The owners’ intent was doubtlessly to deter homeless people from lying down there, from creating an unsavory or revealing scene at the edge of one of Montreal’s most troubled (and homeless person-intensive) public spaces. But following an article published in Le Devoir last Tuesday, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre took to Twitter to call for the spikes’ removal, stating that “I guarantee that these spikes will be gone today, even if I have to remove them myself!” Later that day, the offending devices were removed.
The Montreal incident follows a similar furor in London, where last Monday Mayor Boris Johnson opined (again via Twitter) that the spikes installed at a South London luxury apartment complex are “ugly, self-defeating & stupid.” Though a petition was circulated against this installation—gathering over 100,000 signatures—private property laws are such that the building owners are under no obligation to comply. When activists noticed that British supermarket chain Tesco had installed a plate of spikes on the sidewalk outside one of its downtown stores, however, they poured wet concrete over them (for more on this story, check out VICE UK). Soon after that, they were removed.
In spite of the recent uproar, these devices are nothing new in London. As it happens, I lived in the British capital back in the early 2000s, and first noticed these things on an office block somewhere between Clerkenwell and the City. I found them striking at the time, because I had never seen anything of the sort in my native Canada. I recall them seeming to signify something about London; they indicated that this was an older and colder place than I came from, that Londoners were prepared to take harsher measures on this and other things than were my countrymen. But maybe Canada wasn’t all that different. Maybe we were just a bit behind.
According to Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Secretariat (a federal government-operated group), there are between 150,000 and 300,000 homeless people in Canada. In 2012, a McGill University study stated that up to 28,000 of them are located in Montreal. Given such numbers, it is impossible to expect that this will be anything but a highly visible social issue in Canada’s largest cities. But this was not always the case. In the 1960s, even reports prepared by advocacy groups did not mention the phenomenon of people sleeping in the streets; instead, they cited “poor-quality accommodations” like rooming houses or charity flops. Until the federal government began to transfer funding from affordable housing initiatives to shelter construction in the mid-’80s, the spectacle of Canadians living and sleeping in public spaces was largely unknown. Every time I visit Montreal or Toronto with my London-born father, he is astonished by how many people are sleeping rough. When he immigrated to Canada in 1974, he noted, “it just wasn’t like that.”
The presence of spiked plates is a rare example of a social debate taking physical form. Though the mayors of Montreal and London might tweet disgustedly about these things, their view is not the only one. On the opposition’s part, Breitbart UK journalist Milo Yiannopoulos has already busted out some heavy imagery, calling out “the fulminating spinsters of the left-wing press” for their “pearl-clutching” and their “squeals”; according to Yiannopoulos, the spikes are simply a healthy incentive, a visible expression of “good city hygiene.”
In spite of the Berri Square incident, this sort of “hygiene” remains foreign to Canada. In London, a great deal of that city’s Victorian West End was developed around small parks enclosed by iron spikes of the “it would-hurt-if-you-fell-on-them” variety. Only residents of the surrounding houses could enter, and trespassing was and is a criminal offence. Though activists may have forced the removal of Tesco’s particular row of obstacles, their counterparts remain scattered throughout the city, impervious to petitions if not poured concrete.
In Canada, so far, the whole thing has prompted more than this sort of grassroots, defensive actions. Following Mayor Coderre’s protest and removal of the Berri Square spikes, Québec Solidaire MNA Manon Massé has asked Government Whip Lucie Charlebois (whose portfolio, as unpromising as it may sound, “includes homelessness”) to amend the Liberal government’s action plan for the homeless.
Charlebois has stated that the new plan would be released as soon as possible, adding that “spikes are not the answer.”
As heartening as that might seem, though, spikes are not really the center of this issue. Though Massé may personally feel (and publicly express) that spikes are barbarous, the spikes are just one property owner’s self-interested response to a vast social concern. It might have been a shitty response, or an insensitive one, but the spikes are arguably less barbarous than the situation of a country whose homeless population has skyrocketed over several decades of continuous growth.
In London, where anti-homeless devices are everywhere, another protest is scheduled for June 21. In Canada, where devices have been removed, we will await a new proposal from the government. Without some sort of unprecedented plan to reverse a decades-long increase in homelessness, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position as we did Tuesday morning, save for the removal of one landlord’s ungracious steel protest. Could it be that in collecting our spikes, we will have still somehow missed the point?