'Hostile to the homeless'

There’s a cluster of large rocks cemented into the ground outside Main Street skateboard shop Antisocial.

Painted in a rainbow of colours, the jagged stones could easily be mistaken for an art installation by passersby. However, anti-poverty advocates argue the rocks serve another purpose — they take away a sheltered spot to sleep under the store’s awning.  

Employee Kelly Day believes the rocks, affixed into the pavement on either side of the entrance, were there long before Antisocial opened.

But, skateboarders are no stranger to so-called "defensive architecture," a now ubiquitous feature of urban design intended to prevent unwanted behaviour in certain public areas, such as loitering, sleeping and skateboarding.

In the early ’90s, Vancouver’s financial district became ground zero for a new invention called “skatestoppers.” Since then, the metal clamps have been fastened to curbs, ledges and other surfaces across the city, rendering once-popular skate spots obsolete.

However, most defensive design targets the homeless, from armrests blocking people from lying on benches to planters and boulders that obstruct sheltered space, like the rocks that sit outside Antisocial.

But according to Pivot Legal Society, hostile design does more than just shoo homeless people away, it engenders a city-wide atmosphere of exclusion, driving Vancouver’s most vulnerable off the street into the city’s parks.

Not only does defensive design reinforce negative stigma, but it pushes homeless individuals to set up “informal tent city structures,” where people feel a greater sense of security and community, says Meenakshi Mannoe, a community educator.

According to data released June 12, approximately 2,223 homeless people were living in Vancouver this past March, including 614 without a shelter. 

A two per cent increase from 2018, this count would likely have been higher without the 606 temporary modular homes built in Vancouver over the past year. City staff is currently searching for sites to construct another 600 temporary modular homes.

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